What do we really know of the origins and first spread of major monotheistic religions, once we strip away the myths and later traditions that developed? Creating God uses modern critical historical scholarship alongside archaeology to describe the times and places which saw the emergence of Mormonism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. What was the social, economic and political world in which they began, and the framework of other contemporary religious movements in which they could flourish? What was their historical background and what was their geographical setting? Written from a secular viewpoint, the author reveals where a scholarly approach to the history of religions may diverge from the assumptions of faith, and shows the value of comparing different movements and different histories in one account. Throughout history, many individuals have believed that they were in direct contact with a divine source, receiving direction to spread a religious message. A few persuaded others and developed a following, and a small minority of such movements grew into full religions. In time, these movements developed, augmented, selected and invented their own narratives of foundation: stories about the founders’ lives and the early stages in which their religious group emerged. Modern critical scholarship helps us understand something of how a successful religion could emerge, thrive and begin the journey to become a world faith. This book presents a narrative to interest, challenge and intrigue readers interested in the beginnings of some of the most powerful ideas that have influenced human history.
A number of discussion points, themes and ideas emerge from the history of the religious movements’ origins outlined in the previous chapters. These focussed on religions that were or that became part of the monotheistic tradition and the presence in the narratives of ‘prophets’, even if, as with Judaism and Zoroastrianism, some of those figures were seen as part of the deeper past. Individual religious reformers were important in the development of religions elsewhere, such as Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), but not in the same role of receiving and transmitting a direct divine message or text. The polytheisms of eastern religions also marked them out as distinct. Psychiatry distinguishes forms of delusion in which people consider themselves divine or in touch with the supernatural. Many individuals consider themselves prophets but only some achieve a following, although the study of New Religious Movements shows many which have developed in the present era. Initial support from a visionary’s family may be an important contributor to the initial impact of a revelation. Women prophets have been fewer in history, reflecting the patriarchal patterns of society. Linkage to an existing religious tradition helps to give a new movement authenticity. Religions may emerge in marginal social contexts, and can provide an alternative to political rebellion in times of economic and social stress. Studies of individual religions and their origins reveal similarities but also differences. There is much room for further debate from a secular viewpoint on these topics.
In the middle decades of the 7th century, armies from the Arabian Peninsula achieved the rapid conquest of territories extending from Afghanistan to North Africa, seized from the weakened Sasanian and Byzantine Empires. They created new settlements and fortifications, and taxes were now payable to the new rulers. However, for much of the next century, the conquest did not transform the material culture, economic or social pattern of most of the peoples of the Levant. The unifying ideology of the conquerors from Arabia was adherence to a new religion, Islam, but the Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity in newly controlled communities continued to operate and develop without enforced conversion. Politics rather than religion ruled. The Islamic community and its military and political strengths were brought together by the man who declaimed the key religious texts. Muhammad ibn ʿAbdullah was a merchant from Mecca in the Hijaz region of western Arabia, who proclaimed from ca. 613 to his death in 632 his religious revelations, which would be brought together as the Qur’an. Our main sources for the origins of Islam were compiled by Muslim scholars some six generations after the death of the Muhammad. Modern scholarship has considered the context in which Islam emerged, in a world of competing monotheisms and polytheism, and asks whether Mecca was indeed the important trading town these traditions suggested. Historical debates indicate we should be less confident than we once were about the origins of Islam.
From the middle of the 1st century ce, a new religious movement emerged in parts of the Roman Empire. Those who would be called Christians included members of the widespread Jewish diaspora and non-Jews, responding to travelling evangelists, of whom Paulos (Paul) was a leading figure. At the core of the new religion was a narrative of salvation through Yeshua (Jesus), a preacher from Galilee who was executed in Jerusalem, was said to have returned to life before ascending to heaven, and who was now considered to have divine status as the Son of God. Paulos had never met Yeshua or even heard him speak, nor had he joined the disciples who followed him in his lifetime, but he shared their beliefs in Yeshua’s resurrection and role in personal salvation for those who believed in him. Yeshua’s direct followers had initially considered the movement as specifically for Jews and were expecting an imminent apocalyptic change, but they achieved only modest success within Judaea itself. In his native Galilee, Yeshua’s message inspired a following which attracted Jewish people from outside that region. He travelled to the religious centre of Jerusalem in Judaea, where he was executed by the Romans after about 30 ce with support from Jewish religious authorities. By the later 1st century, a set of traditions had been recorded about Yeshua. The archaeological record begins to show the existence of Christian communities within the Roman Empire only from the late 2nd century, suggesting the growth of Christianity was both gradual and widely dispersed.
Between the late 6th century and 4th century bce the religious practices and beliefs of Judaism developed under a group of religious leaders based in the former capital of Judah, Jerusalem, now within the small marginal province of Yehud in the Persian Empire. They transformed what had become at times the exclusive worship of Yahweh in the region into monotheism, which recognised Yahweh as the sole existing creator god. They assembled the canon of the Jewish religion, the Tanakh or Old Testament, with new books alongside edited versions of earlier texts and oral literatures. The new religious leadership focussed on the area of Judah and the Temple they built in Jerusalem, applying the name of the former northern kingdom, Israel, to the larger Yahwist community. As background they emphasised their families’ exile when the Neo-Babylonian rulers had followed their conquests of Judah in 597 and 586 bce with the removal to Babylonia of groups of the political, religious, mercantile and craft elites. The exile provided the context for a theological move to a strict monotheism. The conquerors had left behind the larger part of the Judaean community, and the archaeology of Judah indicates much cultural continuity but with the dramatic reduction of Jerusalem’s position as a major urban centre. In 539 Persian ruler Cyrus the Great conquered Babylonian territory and allowed his new subjects to return to their own gods and cults. Some of the Judaean community took the opportunity to move back, and over time they were joined by additional returnees.
The religion that is today called Zoroastrianism is considered by many to be the oldest of the religions with a single creator divinity at the centre of its beliefs. This divinity was called Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord), from which comes an alternative name for the religion, Mazdaism. The religion’s primary texts, the Gathas, identify a prophet Zarathushtra as their author, and he has therefore been widely considered as founder of the religion. While Zoroastrian traditions placed the prophet’s life in the late 7th to early 6th centuries bce, for some modern scholars the origins of Zoroastrianism, the prophet and his texts stretch far back into the 2nd millennium bce. The origins and spread of Zoroastrianism present many intriguing questions, with differing claims for evidence of the Ahura Mazda cult, the antiquity of the practices, texts and prophet of Zoroastrianism, and the places of its development. Following the Muslim Arabians’ conquests of the Sasanian Empire, Zoroastrian priests committed to writing the sacred texts of the Avesta. A millennium earlier, the inscriptions of Achaemenid Persian rulers show they were worshippers of Ahura Mazda, but with no mention of Zarathushtra. Scholars have identified passages in the later writings of Judaism and early Christianity that echo Zoroastrian ideas. There is a broad consensus that places Zoroastrianism’s early stages in Central Asia, where history and archaeology provide a background to the societies in which it may have evolved. Yet mysteries remain about the beginnings of this ancient religion.
In 1846–1847, tens of thousands of adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints left their own societies to create a New Zion by the Great Salt Lake. When the Mormon pioneers travelled west, they found a niche in the lands of Ute and Shoshone Native Americans in which to build their city and temple. The Mormons were the most prominent and lasting of the new religious movements of the ‘Second Great Awakening’; as a part of the westward spread of white families in North America, theirs was the most American of religions. The Mormon movement had attained such substantial growth in just 17 years, since the publication of The Book of Mormon in western New York State in 1830. The new movement was founded and organised, and its founding document was dictated, by 24-year-old farmer’s son Joseph Smith, Jun., in a region regularly visited by evangelical preachers and religious innovators. Less than two generations earlier this had been Iroquois territory; The Book of Mormon gave a special role and history to Native Americans in God’s plan, and a special role to those who followed its teaching and the new Church. Mormon origins, then, lie in two settings of time and place. One was a land with its newly arrived residents looking for new commitments of faith in this new society. The other was a region well beyond the control and culture of the United States, a New Zion set in the midst of indigenous peoples.
This book surveys the origins and first spread of several major religions. It does so from a definitively secular standpoint, using the debates of historical scholarship and the discoveries of scientific archaeology to ask: what do we really know, once we bypass the myths and later traditions that developed? It considers the landscape of each religion’s origins: the place, time and society where it emerged, the material culture of that community, the pattern of contemporary religion and the framework of political history. It addresses religions as the enterprise and activity of human agency, rather than their theology and teachings. The religions covered are those in the tradition of monotheism. Chapters discuss the three ‘Abrahamic’ religions of Judaism (as it became monotheistic), Christianity and Islam, and these are bracketed by chapters on ancient Zoroastrianism (Mazdaism) and modern Mormonism. A feature of the monotheistic tradition is the prophet, the individual who is said to receive direct messages from the divine with instructions or inspiration to spread these widely. The introduction asks three questions: What makes a secular approach different? How do history and archaeology relate in this account? And how do the archaeology of absence and the absence of archaeology influence our understanding?