This book presents an academic introduction to the life and teachings of five Middle Eastern founders of religion five individuals whose systems of faith, thought, and action have won the allegiance of millions. All believed to have experienced a personal encounter with the divine a "voice" directly from the "beyond" to proclaim God's message to the community or people to which they belonged. All attracted followers and opponents. Similarities in their religious outlook abound; but differences between the five pervade their approach toward society and culture, with issues of law, war, women, morality, ethics, the kingdom of God, life after death, and eternal judgment distinguishing their respective beliefs. An Introduction provides an overview of the political history of the Middle East based on four periods (Early, Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman) and a brief description of the surviving religious traditions of the Middle East (including a proposal regarding the nature of so-called "selected" individuals). Five chapter texts separately address each religious founder from the viewpoint of readers from the Judaic and Christian traditions in terms of the religious world into which each individual appeared; the traditional account as presented by available sources or evidences; the reliability of the available sources or evidences for reconstructing their biographies; and a critical assessment of both the sources or evidences and the traditional account. A concluding chapter compares the similarities and differences of the received divine messages, and notes that no new message has ever succeeded in shaking off entirely the influence of the faith from which it arose. The work has been specifically designed for student adoption in Religious Studies.
|Publisher:||Sussex Academic Press|
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About the Author
Solomon Nigosian Ph.D., is a historian of religion specializing in Biblical and Near/Middle Eastern Religions. His numerous books include Magic and Divination in the Old Testament; The Zoroastrian Faith: Tradition and Modern Research; Judaism: The Way of Holiness; Islam: Its History, Teachings and Practices; and World Religions: A Historical Approach, 4th ed. He is Research Associate Emeritus at Victoria College, University of Toronto.
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The Middle Eastern Founders of Religions
Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Zoroaster, and Baha'u'llah
By Solomon Nigosian
Sussex Academic PressCopyright © 2015 Solomon Nigosian
All rights reserved.
And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, "I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt." When the Lord (YHWH) saw that he turned aside to see, God (Elohim) called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here am I." Then he [God] said, "Do not come closer; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground."
Judaism is one of the oldest surviving religions that originated in the Middle East sometime during the middle of the second millennium BCE. It is practiced today by millions of Jews living in Israel and all over the world. To understand the religion of Judaism, we need to keep in mind the following important points.
First, Jews consider themselves direct descendants of Abraham, with whom God established a "Covenant." The significance of that concept is clear: Jews consider Judaism an extension of biblical religion and think of themselves as successors or inheritors of the "Chosen People" recorded in the Jewish scriptures (known as the Old Testament by Christians). From biblical days to the modern period, historical events have always been understood in terms of that unique Covenant between God and the Jewish people.
Second, Judaism has no identifiable founder analogous to most other religions (e.g., Buddhism, Christianity, Islam). The Jewish people consider Abraham their ancestral "father" who obeyed the divine command and Moses the one who received and transmitted the "divine Law" ("Instruction" or "Guidance").
Thus, the story of Moses has played a major role in the formation of Judaism and the Israelite nation (ancestors of Jews). As the people's liberator, leader, and lawgiver, he delivered the divine laws which formed the basis of Judaism. As lawgiver and founder of the Israelite nation, he developed the covenant, previously established between God and the patriarchs (Abraham Isaac, and Jacob), into one between God and the nation. More about that later; but first it is necessary to present the world into which Moses appeared.
Egypt: The Religious World of Moses
Long before the advent of the pharaohs, the Egyptians were already an ancient people with roots in the Old Stone Age, when scattered groups of hunters wandered along the mud strip of the Nile River. Some time between 10,000 and 7000 BCE, a pastoral group settled along the fertile Nile valley. Between 7000 and 3000 BCE, those settlers organized themselves into independent villages with buildings constructed of wood, brick, and stone. By about 3000 BCE they had developed the art of hieroglyphic writing (picture script), an advance followed shortly afterward by the unification of many village communities into a single kingdom under one imperial ruler, called the "pharaoh."
From about 3000 BCE, the official religion recognized every pharaoh as the incarnate son of the sun god and a god himself. It was unnecessary, then, to seek the will or the mandate of the sun god, because that mandate was expressed through the pharaoh-god. Justice was based not on a code of laws but on the pharaoh's own decisions made in accordance with custom. Those who resisted the pharaoh's supreme authority were punished as rebels.
The cult of the pharaoh was perhaps best expressed by the immense structure of the pyramids. Each pharaoh built a pyramid complex, which was both a symbol of his power and his final resting place. The divine tombs were central to the cult of the pharaoh-god, who in death was assumed to have returned to the company of all pharaoh-gods as the next pharaoh-god succeeded to his earthly mandate. The sight of those monuments suggested to the Greek invaders, centuries later, harsh, forced labour imposed by a hateful tyrant. Such a view was a misunderstanding of the religious conviction and mentality of the Egyptians, who willingly accepted the obligation to work on monumental projects as service befitting the incarnate pharaoh-god.
Along with the pharaoh cult, Egyptian religion embraced a remarkable variety of gods and goddesses. Each region in Egypt had its own deity, and cities and villages in each region recognized local extensions to regional pantheons. The most striking feature of Egyptian religious tradition, however, was not its polytheistic nature or sheer quantity of gods; rather, Egyptian religion was distinguished by the remarkable qualities of its deities. Egyptian gods and goddesses were thought of either as complete animals or as semihuman and semi-animal forms. Whatever the underlying concept, the Egyptians saw no difficulty in the worship of powers with human or animal characteristics.
Besides the deities endowed with animal forms, Egyptian religion recognized a host of other divinities. Among them were various cosmic deities, such as the earth god Geb, the heaven goddess Nut, and the air god Shu (note the reversal of the usual assignment of the sexes in ancient religions – a male earth god and a female god of heaven). Among the astral deities, the sun god Horus initially was the most prominent. He was not the only sun god, however; others were Kheprer, Atum, and Re (or Ra), who in time eclipsed Horus.
Attempts by the priests to organize this amorphous collection of deities and beliefs into some sort of system resulted in a variety of family groupings. Some deities, such as the creator god Ptah, the war goddess Sekhmet, and the medicine god Imhotep, were identified in a triad as father, mother, and son, as were the sun god Amon-Re, the Nile goddess Mut, and their son, the moon god Khonsu.
No grouping of deities stirred popular interest more than the family that included the Isis-Osiris-Horus group. According to the earliest Egyptian version of the story (the Pyramid Texts, assembled from fragments of funerary hymns and rituals), Osiris was a good and beneficent god-king who was killed by his evil brother, Seth. Seth made good his escape, taking Osiris's "third eye" (symbolic of kingship) with him. Meanwhile, Isis and Nephtys found their brother's body; while Isis wept and embraced the corpse, Osiris suddenly came to life long enough to impregnate her. The result of that union was the child god Horus, who, as soon as he was old enough, was asked by Isis to avenge his father's death.
Horus first appealed to the court of deities, accusing Seth of murdering his father. Because the court was slow to act, Horus then took the law into his own hands, killing Seth and recovering his father's third eye. As soon as Horus replaced the eye in his dead father's corpse, Osiris was resurrected. From then on, Osiris presided over the underworld as judge of the dead. He bequeathed his third eye to Horus, who wore it as the ruler and sun god of Egypt.
The erection of the pyramids and the process of mummification (embalming) are perhaps the best-known symbols of an Egyptian preoccupation with the afterlife. The Egyptians perfected the technique of mummification to such a degree that a corpse could be preserved from decomposing almost indefinitely.
Retribution for the deeds of this life pervaded the thinking behind mummification. After death, so the Egyptians thought, everyone was fated to appear before the tribunal of Osiris. There, in the presence of Osiris and forty-two divine jurors, the newly dead were expected to confess to and exonerate themselves of various crimes, sins, and misdemeanours. To do that, the dead were buried with a guidebook or mortuary text, a collection of hymns, prayers, mythologies, and magical formulas gathered by scholars under the title The Book of the Dead. The mortuary texts described the important experiences awaiting the deceased, along with a long list of "negative confessions," or protestations of guiltlessness, which the dead had to recite to certify themselves worthy of entering the land of Osiris.
After the plea, the Egyptians envisioned that the heart of the deceased person was weighed on a scale against an ostrich feather, the symbol of truth. If the heart overbalanced the scale, then retribution followed. One view held that the guilty were destroyed by the "Devouress," a terrifying and frightful creature. Another view was that retribution took the form of a fiery hell where the guilty writhed in nameless agony. If, however, the scales were balanced, the dead were permitted to enter the world of the blessed. There they were free to make use of the funerary articles stored in their tombs to speed their journey and ease their transition to the netherworld: these included chairs, beds, chariots, boats, kitchen utensils, combs, hairpins, cosmetics, gilded and silver objects of art, foodstuffs (such as jars of water, wine, grain, dates, cakes, portions of beef and fowl), and models of women and servants. Spells and incantations were provided to vivify the models of women and servants so they could be put to work as soon as their masters or mistresses arrived in the world of the blessed.
The theme of creation and the origin of all things reflect the rich variety of Egyptian mythologies, several of which are common to many religions. But unlike some religions, the mythology of Egypt does not provide a uniform pattern or an explanation for various phenomena. On the contrary, several mutually exclusive – and sometimes contradictory – conceptions coexisted. For example, instead of a single account of the origin of things, several creation myths are found.
Creation is attributed to the creator god Atum (or Atum-Kheprer), who created air, moisture, earth, sky, and the deities and put his own vital force into the first creatures. But the Egyptians also viewed the god Ptah as the First Principle, taking precedence over other creator deities. Alternately, they saw the origin of everything as the work of Kheprer, the morning-sun god conceived of as a scarab beetle.
Attribution of creation to at least three divine agents is only one example of many apparent contradictions implicit in Egyptian mythology. Another contradiction involves the notion of the sky as being supported, variously on posts, on walls, and on a cow, by a goddess whose arms and feet touched the earth, or by a god. It is difficult, if not impossible, to establish which of those mythologies most appealed to the Egyptians. Possibly they represented regional or local variations on common themes or were beliefs held at different times.
A radical break from the established traditional Egyptian religion took place during the reign of the Pharaoh Amen-hotep IV (ca. 1380–1362 BCE), who moved his capital from Thebes to Tell-el-Amarna, changed his name to Akh-en-Aton (or Ikhnaton), and instituted the exclusive worship of Aton, the sun disk, as the creator and sustainer of all things. Moreover, he ordered the priests to expunge the names and images of all deities other than Aton from all public records, monuments, and temples. He then created new centres throughout his empire, from Syria to Nubia, for the sole worship of Aton.
Because Akh-en-Aton was devoted to only one god, and because he identified that god as being exclusive and supreme (not merely the highest god among many), some scholars, though not all, have regarded him as the founder of monotheism (worship of one god). His monotheistic beliefs are best expressed in a hymn (composed ca. 1370 BCE) strikingly similar to the biblical hymn in Psalm 104 that praises God for his work of creation. The following parallel selections illustrate the generic similarities between the two compositions:
O Yhwh my God, thou art very great. Thou art clothed wit honor ... O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom has thou made them all; the earth is full of creatures. Thou didst set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be shaken.
Hymn to Aton
Thou dost appear beautiful on the horizon of heaven O living Aton ... How manifold is that which thou has made, hidden from view! Thou sole god, there is no other like thee! Thou didst create the earth according to thy will, being alone: mankind, cattle, all flocks, everything on earth which walks with (its) feet, and what are on high, flying with their wings.
The similarity in spirit and wording of the Egyptian hymn to Psalm 104 often has been noted and discussed by scholars. The statement, "Thou sole god, there is no other like thee," is commonly cited by scholars as evidence of the monotheistic faith of Akh-en-Aton. Sigmund Freud offered in his book Moses and Monotheism (1939) the ingenious suggestion that Moses, who was raised in the Egyptian royal palace around that time, was influenced by Akh-en-Aton's monotheistic belief. Few scholars, however, take that proposal seriously.
Whatever links existed between Atonism and Mosaic religious traditions, the reforms instituted by Akh-en-Aton failed to survive his death. In fact, the new capital he founded was destroyed, his memory effaced, and the name of Aton obliterated from every public place. The succeeding pharaoh, Tut-ankh-Aton, changed his name to Tut-ankh-Amon (more popularly known today as King Tut) and yielded to the entreaties of his priests to return to traditional religious structures. Osiris, Isis, Horus, Amon-Re, and many other deities resumed their former status.
Sometime during these dramatic and decisive events Moses appeared. His biography is recorded in the Jewish scripture (Old Testament). So let us consider the traditional account as presented by biblical authors.
The first and preeminent leader in the four books from Exodus to Deuteronomy is Moses. The opening section of the book of Exodus relates how the descendants of Jacob's twelve sons find themselves as slaves in Egypt. And to make matters worse, the Israelite population had grown to such a degree that the Egyptian government feared the Israelites would become too numerous to control. Consequently, the Egyptian pharaoh (king) ordered all male babies born to Israelite families to be killed. Moses, who was born during that period (perhaps the thirteenth century BCE), was hidden at home for three months, until the consequences of discovery prompted his mother to set her baby adrift in a waterproof basket in the rushes along the Nile River. There he was discovered by the pharaoh's daughter, who reared him in her palace as her adopted son.
Moses is the youngest of three children born to Jochebed (mother) and Amram (father), members of the Levites (Israel's priestly tribe). The older brother Aaron later became Israel's first High Priest, and his sister Miriam, who kept watch over the basket, approached Pharaoh's daughter and offered to find an Israelite woman to nurse the baby. The princess agreed, and Miriam took the baby to her mother, where Moses remained until he was weaned (perhaps 3–6 years).
As a young man, Moses witnessed a scene that became a turning point in his life: an Egyptian beating an Israelite. Moved by a sudden outburst of anger, he killed the Egyptian on the spot; soon after, Moses fled eastward and found refuge with Jethro, a Midianite priest (a Midianite was a member of a nomadic tribe that has long since disappeared). Eventually Moses married Zipporah, one of Jethro's daughters.
A second turning point occurred while Moses was herding Jethro's flock of sheep near Mount Horeb. There he experienced the presence of a divine being in a burning bush – an incident that not only changed his life but altered the destiny of his people in Egypt. The divinity charged Moses with bringing the Israelites out of the land of their enslavement and taking them to the "promised land" – the land of the Canaanites, where their ancestors had lived. Moses was assured by the divine presence, or God, that he would receive all the power necessary to persuade the pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Moses, however, comes up with all sorts of excuses and begs God to send anyone but him. In the end God tells Moses that his brother, Aaron, can assist him on this mission.
When Moses returned to Egypt, however, he found the pharaoh impervious to his pleas. Moses, directed by God, first threatened and then struck Egypt with nine terrible plagues in succession. Finally, the tenth plague, which struck and killed all the first-born sons of the Egyptians, including the pharaoh's, forced the pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Only the Israelite children were "passed over" (remained unharmed), and to this day the incident is commemorated as the "night of the Passover" or the Passover feast.
Moses then led the Israelites miraculously through the waters of the Red Sea (in Hebrew Reed Sea, whose exact location is disputed) and across the desert to the foot of Mount Horeb (sometimes referred to as Mount Sinai). This event, commonly known as the Exodus (from Greek meaning Going Out) played a basic role in the formation of the ancient Israelite people.
With Moses acting as the intermediary, a confrontation between God and the Israelites resulted in a solemn pact, commonly known as The Covenant. Tradition relates how Moses left the people at the foot of the mountain while he went up to communicate with God. Several days later, he returned with two stone tablets delivered to him by God and inscribed with the commandments of God, the familiar code known as the Ten Commandments.
Excerpted from The Middle Eastern Founders of Religions by Solomon Nigosian. Copyright © 2015 Solomon Nigosian. Excerpted by permission of Sussex Academic Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Moses 20
2 Jesus 39
3 Muhammad 57
4 Zoroaster 76
5 Baha'u'llah 89
Concluding Observations 97