Sunday, April 7, 2013

History Book on Religion

Some interesting facts I read in the History textbook WCIV by Gavin Lewis

Throughout the Paleolithic Age, all human beings lived as migratory (wandering) hunters, fishers, and gatherers of edible plants, sheltering in caves, in temporary huts, or in the open if the climate was favorable.  most likely their way of life was much like that of hunters and gatherers who have been studied by anthropologists in recent times.(pg 7)

The Agricultural Revolution:
Among the consequences of this change were a massive increase in the supply of food and a steep rise in population; the replacement of hunting and gathering bands by families and village communities as the basic human groups; the growth of hereditary differences of wealth, status, and power within communities; and new and less equal relationships between men and women(pg 8)

Among the most important traditions and customs that governed the life of villages and families would have been those connected with religion.  Archaeologists excavating larger villages sometimes find buildings bigger than ordinary houses, with a layout much like that of temples of later civilizations. Most likely an ancient belief in powerful beings who could influence the world and humans had already evolved into polytheism, the belief in countless humanlike gods and goddesses.  Villagers would want to have at least one such being become part of their community.  They would build this being a house where he or she could live among them, be served and honored with offerings and sacrifices, and in return watch over and protect them. (pg 10)

At the top of the system of ranks stood the priesthood. As Sumerian communities became larger and wealthier than ever before, they devoted much of their new resources to the service of the gods and goddesses, and a class of hereditary servants of these mighty beings arose.  The servants of the gods directed the building of unprecedentedly large temples to house the gods and goddesses, employed craftsmen to furnish the temples with costly and beautiful works of art, managed vast properties, introduced technological innovations, and were responsible for the invention of writing.  In Sumer, the priesthood led the process of social, technical, and cultural innovation out of which civilization emerged.
In time, however, as the waters retreated and resources grew scarcer, there arose another group of leaders--military chieftains and warriors, who fought the cities' wars and thereby rose to wealth and power.  By 2500 B.C., each city had a supreme ruler bearing the title of lugal or "great man." In effect, the "great men" were kings, with power not only in war but also in peacetime governance.  Like everyone else, they did their best to keep their power and position in their families, and they became founders of dynasties.  Their relationship with the priests seems to have been one of both partnership and competition.  Like the priests, the kings claimed that they ruled as servants of the gods.  To make sure of divine support, they built temples and took a leading part in temple rituals, and later myths and epics portrayed them as personally beloved of gods and goddesses. (pg 12)

The Sumerians had countless traditions, found in myths, temple hymns, and prayers, about their gods and goddesses. These traditions did not amount to a single consistent belief system, and of course, other peoples had different deities and told different stories about them. But the general Sumerian way of thinking about the gods and goddesses was widely shared by ancient civilizations until the rise of the belief in one God or monotheism.
The gods and goddesses were holy, inspiring love and fear in humans because there was nothing that did not depend on them: the fury of storms and war, the abundance of fields and flocks, the survival of great cities, dreams in the night, or sexual desire. They were not necessarily righteous: they might get drunk, have brawling quarrels, or be unfaithful to each other with other deities or with humans. Yet this made no difference to their holiness, for they were above mere human rules and regulations. For example revered deities were said to practice incest involving all combinations of siblings, parents, and children. (pg 15)

The Egyptians, like other polytheistic peoples, recognized no hard-and-fast boundary between humans and gods, and in the case of the Pharaoh, they took this belief much farther than the Mesopotamian's. For the Egyptians the pharaoh was to be obeyed as a man given power by the gods and venerated as a god who dwelt among men. (pg 22)

In religion, the Persians began to break away from traditional polytheism, and their beliefs probably influenced the monotheism of the Jews.  The Persian religious thinker Zoroaster, who is believed to have lived in the seventh century B.C., preached faith in one God, the author of both good and evil.  his followers turned this faith into a dualism that taught that the world was the scene of two rival forces: Ahura Mazda, god of goodness and light, and Angra Mainyu, demon of evil and darkness. Righteous humans would go to the heavenly courts of Ahura Mainyu. At the end of time, however, a savior would appear, miraculously born, to prepare the way for Ahura Mazda's triumph. Angra Mainyu would be made harmless, and all of humanity, including even the captives in hell, would be raised to enjoy eternal bliss. These beliefs were proclaimed in a revered collection of holy writings, the Avesta. (pg 36)

Of all the changes that took place in the lands between the Indian Ocean and the Aegean Sea after 1200 B.C., one of the most momentous was the appearance of a new kind of religious belief. Alongside traditional polytheism, there appeared the belief in one God, or monotheism.
The new belief involved far more than just the question of how many divine beings were to be worshiped. The one God was thought of as eternal, almighty, all-knowing, the creator of the whole universe, infinitely good, pure spirit yet somehow masculine. he would give humans prosperity and happiness so long as they worshiped and obeyed him alone, rejected all other gods and goddesses, and behaved righteously toward each other. If they did not, he would punish them with misfortune and misery, and for unsearchable reasons he also allowed evil to befall even those who were righteous in his sight.  One day, however he would send a mighty redeemer who would deliver the righteous from all evil, to live in blessedness forever.  Meanwhile, his worshipers would forma  community united in knowledge of him and obedience to his commands, and guided by holy writings and by specially qualified believers. (pg 37)

By 1200 B.C., many of the settlers formed a distinct people.  Their name is first mentioned in a monument that an Egyptian pharoah set up about that date, listing them among defeated enemies: Israel.

The Israelites, as they were usually called at this time, had traditions of much older origins, which were recorded many centuries later in the Hebrew Bible(the Old Testament of the Christian Bible). These traditions spoke of lengthy travels from Mesopotamia to Egypt, beginning with a first forefather, Abraham; and of escape from oppression in Egypt and wanderings in the desert that lay to the south of Palestine, led by a great prophet, Moses, Both as a wandering and as a settled people, the Bible says, the Israelite's were guided and protected by a mighty god, Yahweh, who had covenanted with them to bring them prosperity and victory so long as they served and honored "no other gods before me."
The Bible also records, however, that the Israelites regularly "lusted after other gods." At first, these deities were probably the traditional gods and goddesses of the nearby lands from which the Israelite settlers came, whom they saw nothing wrong in worshiping alongside Yahweh. As the Israelite's developed into a separate people from their neighbors, however, their traditions of distant origins and Yahweh's guidance became increasingly important to them. They called him sometimes Yahweh and sometimes El, as if they bought of the two supreme gods as one and the same. But in time his name became too holy even to speak, and usually he was called simply "the Lord."
Even so, many or most Israelite's did not give up the worship of other deities. Instead, they continued to follow the polytheistic tradition that it was righteous and prudent for humans to worship not just the chief deity of their own community but all gods and goddesses who might influence their destinies. Priests and prophets might speak of "The Lord, whose name is Jealous," and ask, "Who is God, except the Lord?" But it took many centuries for the Israelite's to decide the priests and prophets were right.(pg 38)

Yahweh's people went on "limping with two opinions" all the same, until Mesopotamian world conquerors reached out to destroy the Israelite kingdoms. In 722 B.C., the Assyrians conquered the kingdom of Israel and made it a province of their empire. After Assyria's fall, the Chaldeans invaded Judah, and in 587 B.C. they captured Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. Both disasters were followed by massive deportations to Mesopotamia, and when Judah fell, many of its people left for Egypt. Villagers in Palestine still worshiped Yahweh, but they were leaderless and mixed with settlers brought in by conquerors. Priests, scribes, warriors, landowners, and many people of lower rank were now in exile.
If the scattered Jews were to survive as the chosen people of the God until the day of full deliverance arrived, they must make drastic changes in their religious practices so as never again to break their renewed covenant. These changes began among the exiled remnant in Babylon, were enforced on the villagers of Judah by returning exiles, and eventually spread to Egypt to form a new pattern of worship and life for Jews in every land.
To make sure that they strictly observed their covenant with God, more than ever before the Jews needed to put in writing the terms of the covenant and the history of God's dealings with them. Documents already existed that told of God's promises and commands to his people and his dealings with them before the exile. Probably during and not long after the exile, these writings were combined and edited to produce books that in time came to be accepted as holy by Jews everywhere. many new works, mostly telling of God's utterances through his prophets and his raising up and casting down of rulers and nations, were written from the time of the exile onward that also came to be considered as truthfully revealing God's deeds and will.
By sometime after 200 B.C., all the books of the present-day Hebrew Bible had been written, though it took until after A.D., 200 for Jewish leaders to settle on the canon--the exact list of works to be considered holy. In this way, the Hebrew bible came into being--not as a single book, but as a collection of books that grew over many centuries.
Partly because the Hebrew Bible evolved in this way, it often makes contrasting statements about the one God. In one book, for example, Yahweh insists to Moses on getting his share of every slaughtered animal, yet in another God declares to a prophet after the exile: "I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings." Andy many Bible stories depict Yahweh as a relentless war-god, while other stories tell of God's goodness to all nations, including even the terrible Assyrians.
Many of the features of God as portrayed in the Hebrew Bible were not new. Other peoples in the lands between the Indian Ocean and the Aegean Sea had already worshiped mighty creators of heaven and earth, inconceivably ancient and mysterious holy beings, dreadful judges of the righteous and the wicked, loving "shepherds" of individual humans, majestic wielders of supreme divine power, and deities to whom they were bound by covenants. But no earlier god had had all these features at once, and few had been without humanlike weaknesses and vices or been considered the only deity to be worshiped (pg 39-41)

The Greeks, like other polytheistic peoples, had no single set of beliefs about how the gods and goddesses were to be worshiped or about their plans for and demands on the human race. Traditional myths of the deities' personalities and deeds were preserved in the works of early poets, among them Homer, and lived on in poetry and art for thousands of years.  Above all, however, Greek religion was a way for people and communities to understand and if possible influence the workings of the universe and human destiny--a way that many generations of Greeks found consoling and compelling.
The Greeks worshiped countless deities, who they believed could wield their power for good or ill on individuals, families, and city-states, so that it was vital to win their favor. "Impiety"--openly denying or insulting a deity--was a crime punishable by death, for it might bring divine revenge upon the community that tolerated it.
The temple, the chief place of worship, was designed as a "home" where the god or goddess could live among the community that he or she protected. The deity was deemed to be present in the temple, usually in the form of a holy image that was tended by priests or priestesses who were appointed by the community or inherited their positions.
Ceremonies were usually performed in front of the temple, where the worshipers presented the priest or priestess with gifts--pottery, garments, whatever might be pleasing to the god or goddess. They also offered up prayers and animal sacrifices to win divine favor and assistance. After an animal had been ceremonially slaughtered and roasted and the aroma had reached the nostrils of the deity, the priest or priestess and the worshipers ate the meat in a common sacred meal. The worshipers also followed the Mesopotamian practice of judging the attitude of the gods to important undertaking from the shape and size of the victim's inner organs.(pg 62 - 63)

It was during the period of Jewish conflict and dispute leading up to the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 that Jesus lived and taught.  What is known of him is found in the gospels (books of "good news") named after his followers Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which are thought to have been written between forty and seventy years after he died about A.D. 30. Most likely the gospel authors retold stories about Jesus that they found in earlier documents, or that had come down to them by word of mouth.  Scholars debate how much these stories reflect Jesus's actual words and deeds, but some basic gospel traditions about him certainly dated back to his lifetime or not long afterward.
In any case, the authors of the gospels felt no need to set down all the details of Jesus's life, but focused on his birth, the brief years when he was a wandering preacher in Judea, and his death and its aftermath.  This was all that was necessary to show Jesus in two roles: as teacher explaining God's purposes and as Messiah sent by God.
Like the Pharisees, Jesus obeyed the Law, visited the Temple, and called for acceptance of Roman rule, while standing apart from the Temple priests.  Like the Pharisees, too, he appealed to a long-standing Jewish tradition of warning that true righteousness meant more than just obeying the strict ritual commands of the Law. However, Jesus took this tradition farther than ever before. he taught that even the most faithful righteousness according to the Law fell far short of what was necessary to please God. One must love only one's friends but one's enemies; one must refrain not only adultery but form lustful thoughts; one must only avoid coveting one's neighbor's goods but give away all possessions and trust in God to "give us this day our daily bread." In short, one must "be perfect, as you heavenly Father is perfect."
But how was it that not all who heard the gospel believed it? Paul himself had come to see the light. This must be the doing of God himself: as Paul said in a letter to believers in Rome, "So then he has mercy upon whomsoever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomsoever he chooses." In that case, faith must be a gift granted or withheld by God for his own secret reasons, so that God determined in advance who would be saved and who would be damned. This doctrine of predestination was to become a feature of Christianity that many believers rejoiced in, others tried to soften, but few rejected outright.
Even during Paul's lifetime, he reproached his fellow Jews for distrusting his vision of Jew's and Gentiles "all one in Christ Jesus," and after he died about A.D. 60--probably beheaded in Rome as a Jewish troublemaker--the vision faded
For Christians to be sure of God's purposes and commands, they also needed writings that they could rely on as truthfully revealing his deeds and will.  To begin with, all they had were the Jewish writings, which they continued to accept as holy. But of course, though these were deemed to foretell the coming of Christ, they did not record the actual deeds and sayings of Jesus or of the apostles who were next to him in holiness.
Collections of Jesus's sayings were probably compiled within twenty years of his death, and the four present-day gospels were written in the second half of the first century, as believers became more widely scattered and living memory of Jesus faded away. Meanwhile, churches that received letters from Paul preserved some of them, passed on copies to other churches, and revered them as the work of an inspired apostle.  Many other gospels, letters, and prophecies appeared in the late first and early second centuries that claimed to be the work of this or that apostle.
Like the rabbis with the Hebrew Bible, the bishops had to decide which of many would-be holy writings truly deserved to be part of the New Testament. Since there was no way of knowing for certain which works had been written by apostles, the bishops usually accepted works that had been long revered by many churches. On the other hand, if a work went against their understanding of what Christian writings "OUGHT" to say, they rejected it. In this way, they took until about A.D. 400 to settle on the present-day New Testament canon of twenty-seven books. (pg 126-130)

There is still more information that I would like to post, but this is what I have so far. I will continue updating.

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