In the beginning
Peoples who live on the edge, living between two very different types of society, are among the most interesting and the most fruitful subjects of study for the historian. Sometimes these are people living in ‘dark ages’ when a long established system is breaking down and new ideas are being introduced, which will soon blossom forth into a new civilisation. But there are also peoples who live geographically on the edge, in boundary zones between two different centres and who are thus pulled in two different directions.
A good example of this are the Jews. They lived in a border zone between the fertile fringes of the Mediterranean occupied by the Philistines and the Phoenicians, and the desert territory to the east, across the River Jordan occupied only by a few hardy herdsmen. They also lived in another border zone, between the great civilisations of Egypt to the south and Mesopotamia to the north and east. In such border zones strange religions often flourish, drawing their strengths from the clash of different ideals and seeking in their mysteries to resolve these differences. And it was in such a border zone that the Jewish religion, one of the world’s greatest religions was born. And in turn, Judaism also gave birth to two even greater religions: that of Christianity and Islam.
Their greatest innovation was monotheism, the concept that there was just one god, and that god was their god and that they were therefore the ‘chosen people’. It is hard for us today to appreciate the novelty of this belief, for we have been brainwashed through many generations into believing that monotheism is not just a superior form of religion, but also the obviously correct and original religion, and that the worship of more than one god is something that is not only perverted but somehow unnatural.
Yet religion to a considerable extent reflects political structures. In a basic tribal society, it is perhaps inevitable that each tribe, or each village should have its own god who looks after the village. When the villagers or the tribes begin to come together to form chiefdoms or towns, they bring their gods with them. The gods are in origin local, but soon get linked, with several gods being joined into one, or one god acquiring several characteristics. Most successful empires have a variety of gods as this enables the rulers to bind together a number of different tribes with their local gods.
It is perhaps difficult for us to realise that polytheism is the norm among great empires, and monotheism should really be regarded as the exception among religions. Monotheism tends to arise with an attempt to centralise, to have one supreme ruler matched by one supreme god. In Egypt, when the Pharaoh Akhenaten tried to rationalise the political situation and to move to a new centre at Amarna, he also promoted the worship of a single god, Aten. Buddhism is an attempt to bring together the variety of Hindu gods, and similarly in the Roman world, when Constantine wished to concentrate power, he promoted Christianity and the worship of a single god.
Let us therefore consider the history of the Jews, and how they came together to form the religion that spawned both Christianity and Islam.
On to: The History of the Jews
Note on the header. This is, of course, the Dome of the Rock, which is a Moslem shrine. However it overlies the site of the Jewish temple, and is thus also the most sacred site for both Jews and Christians. It is therefore not entirely irrelevant; in any case, it is difficult to find any aesthetically pleasing photo of any site in Jerusalem; this is the one site that is, from the aesthetic point of view, really top notch.