Best resources – Christmas, Mithras, and Paul

Merry Christmas! And the question is, if Jesus was born sometime in the spring (when the shepherds were in the fields with the sheep, and the animals’ area with the manger under the house kataluma wasn’t being used), why did Christians create a winter solstice celebration for him instead?

Paul has an epileptic seizure on the road to Damascus

The answer is that Paul caused it. Paul’s intent was to create a Judaism-based religion that would be universally acceptable; he was a Roman citizen, not just a member of a conquered nation, and he wanted his religion to be Roman as well as Jewish. Reputedly epileptic, his seizures gave rise to religious visions, the most famous being of Jesus (who he never met) guiding him along a syncretist path. Paul took popular elements of Roman, Egyptian and Persian religions, and expressed the message of his religion in whatever form was most acceptable to the Empire as a whole.

The most popular religion with the Roman military was Mithraism. It was exclusively male, a mystery cult with seven levels of initiation, and a clear-cut view of the world as the battle-ground between good and evil. It promised eternal life to its believers, and its god was Mithras, the Unconquerable Sun.

For an extensive review of the whole issue, I refer you to Ben Best’s enormous review of the roots of Christmas, from which I quote:

“Mithras was a divine being borne of a human virgin on December 25th (the Winter Solstice by the Roman Julian calendar), his birth watched and worshiped by shepherds. As an adult, Mithras healed the sick, made the lame walk, gave sight to the blind and raised the dead. Before returning to heaven at the Spring Equinox Mithras had a last supper with 12 disciples (representing the 12 signs of the Zodiac). Mithraism included Zoroastrian beliefs in the struggle between good & evil, symbolized as light & darkness. This militaristic black-and-white morality (including a final judgment affecting an afterlife of heaven or hell) probably accounted for the popularity of Mithraism among Roman soldiers. Mithraism was like an ancient fraternity: a mystery cult open only to men which had seven degrees of initiation — including the ritual of baptism and a sacred meal of bread & wine representing the body & blood of Mithras.”

The original December 25th Virgin Birth

The purple-robed priests, candles, incense, circular wafers and Queen of Heaven motifs were ideas that were familiar and attractive to Egyptians. The winter solstice greeting cards and presents, the greenery of trees and branches and garlands, the pantheon of saints to pray to – those customs were comfortable among Greeks and Romans. But the December 25th Virgin Birth (along with much else) was what would make Paul’s Christianity completely familiar and acceptable to the Roman Legions.

In The Gospel According to the Romans, the Roman military are Mithraists while Jesus and his followers are Jews. There weren’t any Christians yet, of course.

Jewish-Egyptian mixed marriage, 5th cent BCE

There’s a lovely true-life family saga from 5th century BC Egypt sketched out in the magazine section of a recent Jerusalem Post. It involves Tamat, the Egyptian female slave of a wealthy Jew. She married Annania Ben-Azaria, an attendant in the Jewish temple in Elephantine where the Jewish god Yahu was worshiped… along with a couple of Egyptian goddesses. The marriage was not formalized until she bore him a child, she (and the child) still being formally the possessions of the original owner.

Elephantine Island, Egypt

Love, slavery… ownership, freedom… monotheism, polytheism… Jews, Egyptians… the relationships become ever more complicated as the next generation grows up and marries.

Fascinating novel potential – but I’d want to know a lot more about 5th century BC Egypt before I dared tackle this one!

The Promised Land, 1 – The Covenant

The Covenant with Abraham is the basis for the world’s three major monotheist religions, as well as for the conflicts between them. It dates back to the time of polytheism, and appears to have been taken originally as a powerplay by one local god, Yahweh, to ally himself with a tribe of humans for their mutual expansion. Abraham was to give sole worship and complete obedience to this god. What the god, now to be GOD, promised in exchange is found scattered through Genesis chapters 12 to 17:

  • to make of Abraham a great nation and to multiply his seed exceedingly
  • to make him father of a great many nations
  • to bless Abraham and make him great
  • to make Abraham a blessing to all the families of the earth
  • to bless those who bless him and to curse those who curse him
  • to give Abraham and his seed forever all the land which he could see
  • to give him a sign of the covenant (circumcision).

And specifically, Genesis 15:18-21 describes what is referred to in Jewish tradition as Gevulot Ha-aretz (“Borders of the Land”) and regarded as the full extent of the land God promised to Abraham:

"From the river of Egypt to the Euphrates"

On that day, God made a covenant with Abram, saying: “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river the Euphrates. The land of the Kenites, Kenizites, Kadmonites; the Chitties, Perizites, Refaim; the Emorites, Canaanites, Gigashites and Yevusites.”

But Arabs also lay claim to legitimate descent from Abraham through his son Ishmael. As Amir Ali has written, ‘The Bible declares, “So, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, Sar’ai, Abram’s wife, took Hager the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife” (Gen 16:3). Note that the adjective wife has been used twice, once associated with Sar’ai and second time associated with Hager indicating no superiority of one wife over the other. This shows, according to the Bible, the original Arabs were equally descendants of Abraham as were the original Bani Israel. Christian and Jewish apologetics may have some irrational rationalization to exclude children of Ishmael from God’s covenant to Abraham.’ (End of quote.)

The vaguely Promised Land…

Monotheism and polytheism – desert and forest

Studies have pointed out that there are interesting correlations between the geographic extremes of Forest and Desert on the one hand, and a whole range of cultural predispositions on the other.

The basic claimed comparison is the table below, and the highlight is that Forests = polytheism, and Deserts = monotheism

FOREST

DESERT

Dispute resolution Non-violent Tendency to warfare
Social structure Egalitarian Stratified
Sexuality Tolerant Taboos punishable by death
Women’s rights Substantial Male-dominated
Religion Polytheism Monotheism

This is simplistic. For example, we now equate the Sahara-Asian deserts with Islam, but historically the Arabian peninsula was overwhelmingly polytheistic, right up until Muhammad began trying to change it in 610 AD. (For an extensive critique of these ideas, and of the groups that disseminate them, see Steven Dutch’s page at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay.)

However there are two lines of thought that can support the ideas of polytheism seeming more natural in a Forest environment, and of monotheism finding an easier reception in a Desert.

  1. A Forest has abundant resources; a resource dispute can be solved by one party moving away. But the limited resources of a Desert will favor the party that uses violence to control the resources, and the need for violence will favor male power and stratified decision-making. A society dominated by a single powerful male will be more receptive to the idea of the Universe being under the control of a single powerful God.
  2. In a Forest, nature has many aspects: trees, rivers, delicious fruits, poisonous fruits, animals you can eat, animals that will eat you, patches of sun, frequent rain, and so on. Nature is diverse, and its gods are diverse. In a Desert, nature is dominated by the sun – omnipresent, all-seeing, harsh, unforgiving, and an easy symbol for the domination of life by a single God.

    The sun - the inspiration for monotheism?

So a more complete comparison might be:

FOREST

DESERT

Environment Complex Sparse
The sun Elusive, welcome Constant, unforgiving
Basic resources Abundant Limited
Dispute resolution Distraction, relocation Retribution, clan warfare
Social structure Egalitarian Stratified
Sexuality Tolerant Taboos punishable by death
Women’s rights Substantial Male-dominated
Religion Polytheism Monotheism

Does this mean that the Celts and Anglo-Saxons and Vikings coming out of the northern forests were non-violent? Hardly! But they were definitely more egalitarian, sexually tolerant and polytheist than the Latin cultures which subsequently dominated them.

You are unlikely to see Scandinavians stoning anyone to death for sexual promiscuity, or for pregnancy outside marriage.

Monotheism and Polytheism – pros and cons

Monotheism is authoritarian – if there is only one god, and only one correct way to understand his will, then there is only one correct way to act regarding the things god finds important. If there are rival suggestions of the correct way to act in these areas, both sides will feel a religious duty to force the other side to change their behavior, and preferably their opinions. This leads to religious police, religious inquisitions, religious wars.

Only One God - bearded dude up in the sky with a whole bunch of what look like lesser gods

Monotheism results in a very focused society, with absolute values and unquestioning support – until a flaw appears, opposition appears, and war breaks out. Monotheism is inherently hostile to democracy and free choice.

It is easier to manage a theocracy for a population that is ethnically and culturally homogenous. The wider it grows, the more allowances have to be made, and the faster the monotheism erodes. The most effective monotheisms are cults operating in isolated compounds.

Polytheism allows the possibility of behaving in different ways, each way being appropriate for a different god. Those who want to worship Venus are not forced to live by the standards of those who worship Mars.

Lots of gods - bearded dude up in the sky with a whole bunch of lesser gods

This advantage allows a political structure that is not limited by a single religious practice to spread across unrelated cultures, adopting their gods into the pantheon of the rulers. This was part of what allowed the Roman Empire to spread so successfully, bringing the worship of Isis in to Rome as well as the worship of Jupiter out to conquered provinces. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire is connected to the replacement of polytheism by monotheism, as Gibbon pointed out.

Polytheism is not all peace and love, however. Where there is no consensus on correct social norms, war cults will want to act in a warlike fashion. Male-only cults will make life hard for women. Patrician cults will formalize aristocracy and slavery.

Mono- or poly-, it’s the theism that is the problem. Matthew, in The Gospel According to the Romans, is an interested but skeptical observer of the religions swirling around the Roman Empire.

Jewish Monotheism, Roman Polytheism. Atheism.

It is amusing to think that many religious Jews and Romans saw each other as atheists.

The Jews felt that polytheism showed that Romans had no concept of the supreme Creator, and were therefore atheists.

The Romans felt that Jews acknowledging only their one tribal god showed that Jews had no concept of the rich and diverse spiritual nature of the universe, and were therefore atheists.

So it goes.

Socrates - bearded old dude who lives on in libraries and T-shirts

The Jews had a point: the Roman gods didn’t look like they were capable of creating a planet, yet alone an entire Universe. They weren’t an orderly or spiritually uplifting bunch.

The Romans had a point: the Jews were claiming that there was only one God, and that He was their tribal god, and no one else’s counted. That’s a no-win situation for anyone but Jews.

Presumably a real atheist, whether Roman or Jew, didn’t give a damn either way.