Tuesday 15 March 2016

Dan 5:5 the rise of the supernatural

Later Old Testament Judaism

Old Testament Judaism was about wisdom, not supernatural belief. There is a whole set of Old Testament books called the wisdom literature, with proverbs and songs. But there is no mention of life after death, except in the sense that our spirit lives on through our children. (I will blog about the passage in Job and the other one in Daniel separately).

The rise of the supernatural

I noted elsewhere that the law of Moses was rejected, and Israel sank into decline, They were controlled by one neighbour after another. At first they could see this as bad luck: after all, Egypt and Assyria were much larger empires. But in the 300s BC came the final humiliation.

Israel's old neighbours the Greeks, another small nation, used to be no further ahead. According to Josephus the Greeks got many of their best ideas from the early Hebrews. They certainly got their alphabet from the Canaanites (the early Hebrews.) But the Greeks, unlike the Hebrews, did not reject logic. So the Greeks had progressed while the Hebrews had not. The Greeks were now  powerful enough to conquer much of the known world, and the weak Hebrews were just another minor kingdom to be easily defeated.

This humiliation like this was too much to bear. So Jewish leaders, unwilling to admit they had rejected Moses, went into supernatural overdrive. In the 300s (BC) the Jews invented (or adopted):

  • the idea of a supernatural messiah to save them. 
  • a supernatural villain called Satan to blame for their mistakes. 
  • a whole series of apocalyptics books foretelling an end times when they would win. 
  • fanatical terrorist believers who would assassinate their enemies. 
  • and more
The Greek masters did not expect this level of fanaticism. So for a short period under Judas Maccabeus the fanatics won. But of course it just led to their masters clamping down even harder. I should probably blog about these developments separately, but the bottom line was that the the 300s seems to be when the belief in the supernatural reached its peak.

But the thinkers had not gone away. They were just in severe retreat.

The later Jews and earliest Christians

The most popular theologian at the time of Christ was Philo of Alexandria. He was so popular among the Jews that he represented them before Rome. He was so popular among the early Christians that they preserved his writings even though they only condemned the writings of others (e.g the gnostics). Philo's whole purpose was to show that religion should never be taken literally. He is generally assumed to mix Judaism with Platonism. But I will argue that he was simply trying to return Judaism to its roots, at a time when supernatural fanaticism was taking the nation to its final destruction. Later scholars (such as the great medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides) looked back and clearly saw an intellectual decline:
"In common with many medieval writers, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim, Maimonides is of the opinion that Jews in antiquity once cultivated the science of physics and metaphysics, which they later neglected for a medley of reasons, historical and theological" (R. Isadore Twersky, "Some Non-Halakic Aspects of the Mishneh Torah" in R. Alexander Altmann, quoted in hirhurim.blogspot.co.uk)

The Roman empire

This non-supernatural, or limited supernatural view was common among ancient thinkers. Cicero summed up the different views of gods throughout the Roman world in the first century BC, in his book "gods". There are basically three views of the gods:
  • The Epicureans (who thought life was to be enjoyed), They followed the teachings of Epicurus, who rejected anything that sounded supernatural. 
  • The Stoics (who thought life was to be suffered), The Stoics did believe in gods, but they personified real ideas: a god of war, a goddess of love, and so on.
  • The skeptics (who thought life was to be questioned). They were, shall we say, skeptical.
The triumph of the supernatural

The fanatical supernatural views had their predictable effect: the Jews annoyed the Romans so much that the Roman Empire destroyed Jerusalem and killed or scattered the people. Meanwhile Paul, a Pharisee, brought the same supernatural views to Jesus' followers. When Jerusalem was destroyed, Jesus' followers lost their leader (James) and Paul's followers were free to make the church in their own image.

It took a while. Many people were still taught the non-supernatural teachings. Take Justin Martyr (AD 100- - 165) for example. He loved Greek philosophy and understood that God is the logos, and called the Christians atheists (when compared to the Romans):
And when Socrates endeavoured, by true reason and examination, to bring these things to light, and deliver men from the demons, then the demons themselves, by means of men who rejoiced in iniquity, compassed his death, as an atheist and a profane person, on the charge that “he was introducing new divinities;” and in our case they display a similar activity. For not only among the Greeks did reason (Logos) prevail to condemn these things through Socrates, but also among the Barbarians were they condemned by Reason (or the Word, the Logos) Himself, who took shape, and became man, and was called Jesus Christ; and in obedience to Him, we not only deny that they who did such things as these are gods, but assert that they are wicked and impious demons, whose actions will not bear comparison with those even of men desirous of virtue. Hence are we called atheists. And we confess that we are atheists, so far as gods of this sort are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God, the Father of righteousness and temperance and the other virtues, who is free from all impurity. (Justin Martyr, first apology, chapters 5 and 6)
But gradually the non-supernatural teaching was stamped out. And that's a topic for another post.

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