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The Evolution of Judaeo-Christian Beliefs

2015-04-02

Here is a little argument about Heaven and Hell that I’ve never heard before.  Not that I believe in “the Afterlife” of any variety at all (even Near Death experiences), but my eye was caught by a reference to the evolution of beliefs about Heaven and Hell and I found this interesting to an objective view of religion.

The argument, written by Winston Wu, is that there is no eternal Heaven and no Hell in the Old Testament except in the very latest portion, the Book of Daniel.  This Book is thought to have been written some time in the second century BCE, roughly 165.  At this time, the Jews were “in exile in Babylon” and under the rule of King Antiochus IV(c. 175), who took over control of the Jewish religion by replacing the high priest, plundering the Temple treasury, and setting up an altar to Olympian Zeus within the Temple precinct.  The Maccabean revolt was partially in response to the tyrannical rule of Antiochus and the Seleucid dynasty, and Daniel reflects this orientation.  The Seleucids tried to introduce the Jews to Zoroastrianism, which, not by coincidence, had a well-developed concept of Heaven and Hell.  The Jewish savants would have been exposed to Zoroaster during his lifetime because they were captives of the Persians and did not return to Palestine until the Maccabean revolt.

Zoroaster, a prophet of the time around 630-550 BCE, taught that the world was the site of a titanic struggle between good and evil, embodied by the gods Omazd (Ahura Mazda) and Ahriman(Angra Mainu.)  This struggle was not endless, but contained in a finite series of time periods (between four and seven) during which things would get progressively worse, culminating in a final victory of good over evil and the onset of an eternity of goodness.  During this final age, the just people of the present would receive their just reward and dwell with the god of goodness forever.  Bad people, however, would be cast into eternal darkness to suffer forever.

This type of religion is known as apocalyptic, based on the idea that there would eventually be a final battle between good and evil with the victory of good justifying everyone’s hopes (and fears.)  Prior to the time of the influence of Zoroastrianism over Judaism, the Jews did not have an apocalyptic point of view (according to this argument.)  There was no “elaborate angelogy or demonology.”  Satan, originally a servant of God and his prosecutor, became more and more like the anti-god Ahriman.  Finally, the Zoroastrians had the notion of a “virgin-born Savior”  who would raise the dead and judge them at the end time; this idea was borrowed and turned into Jesus Christ.

As a corollary, Darrell Till states that Judaism had a “fuzzy” notion of what happened after death and appeared to conclude that the dead simply went down under to a place called “sheol” and dwelt (still dead) in this underworld forever.  There appears to have been considerable skepticism about whether there was any life after death.  This attitude corresponds to the Greek idea of the Underworld, which was definitely underground and could be reached through a cave.

What makes all this entertaining is that it seems to show that religions, and religion in general, have gone through evolutions and have merged into each other.  The idea is that Judaism borrowed its eschatology from Zoroastrianism and that Christianity evolved from a merger of the two religions.  It is probable that Islam can be shown to be an evolution of Judaism and Christianity; this is plainly shown in that Mohammed incorporated both religions as acceptable forebears.  Zoroastrianism appears to have disappeared, or at least become completely submerged.

There are also indications that the religious syncretism that resulted in Christianity occurred in Greece, or at least in a Greek-speaking or Hellenistic context: the New Testament was originally written in Greek.

This is merely a dip of the toe into the subject, coming from the following documents:

http://www.debunkingskeptics.com/DebunkingChristians/Page28.htm (“The Evolution of Heaven and Hell” by Winston Wu, 2011, part of a series on “debunking” Christianity)

http://www.theskepticalreview.com/tsrmag/014front.html (“Daniel and the Resurrection” by Farrell Till)

There is enough on this subject to fill a lifetime’s research, so don’t take it badly if you’ve never heard it before.  I’m currently reading a book on the Hellenistic world from the death of Alexander the Great to the battle of Actium, a period of only 300 years; it is nearly 1,000 pages long, including 120 pages of footnotes.  Most of what happens is forgotten.

 

 

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