Why Polytheism Was Replaced by Monotheism: A Very Brief History of Religion (Part 3)

Part 3: The “god-man” mythology, and the rise of Christianity and Islam

Most significantly, the Jewish religion predicted the coming of a messiah who would “save” all of Mankind. While this was definitely not the first myth (or story) of a “God-man” (god in human form as a savior figure; the first usage of the term God-man as a theological concept appears in the writing of the Christian Apostolic Father Origen in the 3rd Century AD; Baldwin, 1901), it became the genesis for a cult that would change the Eastern and European world.

Perhaps the most ancient God-man figure is Baal (or Bel) of Phoenicia/Babylon. A 4,000-year-old tablet now in the British Museum depicts much of his story. Baal is taken prisoner and tried in a hall of justice; he is tormented and mocked by a rabble; he is led away to a mount; he is taken with two other prisoners, one of whom is released; after he has been sacrificed on the mount, the rabble goes on a rampage; his clothes are taken; he disappears into a tomb; he is sought after by weeping women; finally, he is resurrected, appearing to his followers after the stone is rolled away from the tomb. (Pratt, 2001)

The Egyptians created the sun god (god of light) Horus, the son of Osiris (whose name is a Greek transliteration of the Egyptian Asar), who was the Egyptian god of life, death, fertility, and the underworld. In 3000 BC, Horus was born on December 25 to a virgin, and three kings followed a star in the east to observe and celebrate his birth. At the age of twelve he began to teach others about his father, god, and at the age of thirty he was baptized by Anup to begin his ministry. He had twelve disciples, and went about performing such miracles as healing the sick and walking on water. The sun god battled every day with Set, the God of Darkness, who lived in the dark bowels of the earth. He was called truth, the light, god’s anointed son, the risen savior, the lamb of God, etc. After being betrayed by Typhon, he was crucified and arose again after three days.

Attis of Phrygia (in modern day Turkey), celebrated in 1200 BC, had the same basic characteristics. Krishna of India, in 900 BC, was very similar. Even more closely aligned was Mithra, the sun god of Persia, a messianic figure worshiped around 600 BC, with Sunday being his sacred day of worship; Dionysus of Greece, circa 500 BC, first turned water into wine. Some of the other nicknames for these deities were king of kings, god’s only begotten son, the light of the world, the alpha and omega, and so on.

This is where the story, especially the time sequence, becomes even more muddled. According to Christian tradition, Jesus of Nazareth was born approximately 2,045 years ago. For the first few hundred years after the birth and death of Jesus, the majority of Jews not only denied that the savior figure had actually been born, the name of Jesus is not even mentioned in any of their countless historical writings. The Jews and Romans who did convert to Christianity were few, and were pretty much a persecuted sect. This began to change during the medieval period in the societies controlled by the Roman Empire.

Thus, another question arises: since Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism (as is Islam), why are there such striking similarities between Jesus and the pagan God-man figures who existed in older polytheisms? And why did Christianity overcome its Jewish origins, as well as all of those pagan religions, to become dominant?

Oddly, the rise of Christianity really started with Saul of Tarsus, not the twelve apostles. Saul was born a Pharisee of the Jewish tribe of Benjamin. His father was so wealthy that he bought Roman citizenship, so Saul was free to travel throughout the Empire. Saul was a fanatic about his religion, and was zealous of the traditions of his fathers. At the height of his fame, Saul was known as the greatest persecutor of Christians, which was encouraged by Rome. Saul imprisoned and punished the assembly at Jerusalem, and was responsible for countless deaths in his ambition to exterminate Christianity, which offended the Pharisee community by claiming the savior had come.

One day while traveling to Damascus, so the story goes, a bright light from heaven blinded him and he heard a voice say: “Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?” When he asked who was speaking, the voice said: “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting”.

Talk about your original “born-again Christian”! As much of a fanatic as Saul was as a Pharisee, he became even more vehement about preaching the word of the savior’s arrival, including marching into the tabernacle and berating the Pharisees for not believing. As the world has seen with other fanatics, the power to persuade can be immense. Where Christians had been a small, persecuted cult, the newly christened Paul helped this new religion to expand quickly.

By the 5th Century, the entire Roman Empire was in political, military and religious upheaval. Its holdings were shrinking, and Italy itself was being attacked by invading forces from all directions. Within its boundaries, emperors rose to power and were deposed or killed within a year, and the three primary religions — paganism, Judaism and Christianity — vied in equally bloody battles for supremacy. Then in the 6th Century AD, the Emperor Constantine sought to reunite the empire. He embraced Christianity while incorporating many of the accepted pagan traditions, hoping that eventually they would blend into one. He succeeded, but upon Constantine’s death, the Roman Empire degenerated once more into the many warring factions he had briefly reunited. However, while that highly militaristic version of the Empire may have fallen, it gave birth to a new Phoenix: the Holy Roman Empire, which gradually regained most of all the old territory, but was now controlled by religion and supported by the still powerful military force, in combination driving the new kingdom of heaven.

However, even as the Christian religion was overcoming both paganism and Judaism as the primary force, a new monotheism was rising in the east that would soon challenge it for the loyalty of the faithful, and utterly establish the hold of monotheism. Muhammad ibn Abdullah, born in 570 AD in the Arabian city of Mecca, began preaching his new religion at around the age of forty-three. The Qur’an gives credit to all of the Jewish patriarchs/prophets (including Jesus) as inspiring Muhammad to found Islam, an ultra-fundamentalist, ultra-patriarchal religion that took on the most conservative tenets of Judaism. In the 6th and 7th centuries, Muslim armies conquered the Sassanid (Persian) Empire and most of the Byzantine territories, or Eastern Roman Empire.

Without the prohibitions of “defiling the flesh created by god” of Catholicism to inhibit it, Islam was free to pursue the sciences, most especially medicine. Perhaps because Catholicism was so repressive, or perhaps because Islam was young and vigorous, Islam has grown tremendously while the Christian faith was irreparably split in the 16th Century by Martin Luther. Nevertheless, with the distinct exception of Hinduism in India, all of the polytheisms of the world have shrunk considerably or died altogether.

As science continues to answer the questions that have plagued Mankind since the first sentient being looked up into the heavens and wondered what, why and how, the influence of religion on the human race continues to erode. Perhaps that is why Islam is so virulently fundamentalist: Muslim leaders know they must insist their followers believe absolutely, without question, in the existence and power of god, or they also will eventually lose their hold in the world. If the power of rational thought and expanding knowledge are allowed to grow, the history of religion will become exactly that: history.

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8 Responses to “Why Polytheism Was Replaced by Monotheism: A Very Brief History of Religion (Part 3)”

  1. Harlan Hague Says:

    Very well said. How any reasonably intelligent, open-minded person can read this and not conclude that Jesus was simply the latest in a long line of god-men is beyond me. The only fact in all this is that every people throughout history have needed someone, something, on which they can unload the necessity of making sense of their muddled existence. So they create a supernatural person or force and charge him or her or it with that task.

  2. Don Maker Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Harlan. As you said, “people throughout history have needed someone, something, on which they can unload the necessity of making sense of their muddled existence.” I’m writing a book on this subject, and what I believe is the “superior being” that we should believe in, which is not some all-powerful space alien.

  3. tobeforgiven Says:

    I would love to know more about your reasoning for saying that Origin was the one who first spoke of the idea of the divinity and humanity in one (I assume that is what you are talking about when you say the God man concept?
    Wiki is not always perfect as per http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God-man_(mystic)
    For instance, you might want to research (even using the Wiki link) Apostolic Father to discover if Origen is considered to be an Apostolic Father.
    Also, if you want to ascribe the idea of the divinity of Christ to a later theologian (While origin did most certianly influence the Council of Chalcedon in writing in support of this idea) you might want to read the Gospel of John especially chapter 1. or John 10:30.

    • Don Maker Says:

      Don’t look at Wikipedia; look at “Dictionary Of Philosophy And Psychology”, James Baldwin, 1901. It’s not “my reasoning”, it’s from his research in his book. And no one ascribes the idea of divinity in his book or my article; it’s merely the use of the term, which sums up the concept of the myth, or complex, if you will. Personally, I don’t “ascribe” divinity to any human who lived, nor to any god who never lived.

  4. Donald Miller Says:

    Hmm. Not so certain I can agree with you on religion becoming “history.” I mean, Adolf Bastian had his ideas of Elementary Ideas. As you alluded to in your article, they seem to be ingrained in us.

    • Don Maker Says:

      Yes, it is certainly ingrained in both the psyche and the history of Man, and will no doubt take millenia to eradicate. I’m currently writing a book regarding what I consider the actual trait that separates Man from the lower order animals, which is definitely not a “soul”. Perhaps, if anyone pays attention to it, it may help to keep us moving toward belief in both science and our own minds, and help to erode the power of religion. Will religion ever really die? Probably not.

      • Donald Miller Says:

        I recently saw a very interesting and funny lecture — it’s on Youtube — about just how much animals are like people. I’ve come to the conclusion that the only thing that gives us a “soul” is that we know we’re going to someday die, and animals don’t.

        On eradicating religion, you do realize that you’re way to the right of Christopher Hitchens, don’t you?

  5. Don Maker Says:

    Frankly, I’d never heard of Christopher Hitchens. As I told one religious person, I don’t study atheism, I study religion, and evolve most of my thoughts from that. However, after briefly looking at his bio, I shall give a lot more attention to his writings. Off the top, I don’t think I’m much like him. He said that monotheistic religions were the “true evil axis” (please read my brief history of these). It is my contention that all power-based organizations, whether religious, political or economic, are all inherently evil in that their primary purpose is to propogate themselves by the consolidation of that power. That’s why they’ve all been so closely aligned throughout history, and only recently has there been any movement toward the dissolution of that “evil axis” — well, I guess that actually started with the French Revolution. Historically speaking, that’s pretty recent. Thanks for turning me onto his thoughts, and please give me the link to that youtube video. Cheers.

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