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The Judeo-Christian and Abrahamic Traditions in America  

K. Healan Gaston

The terms “Judeo-Christian” and “Abrahamic” are collective religious descriptors that identify points of theological, historical, and ethical commonality between the world’s largest monotheistic religious traditions. “Judeo-Christian” refers to the ground shared by Judaism and Christianity; “Abrahamic” designates elements common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These terms have most often appeared in three contexts. First, scholars of religion have used them for technical, descriptive purposes, to denote the aforementioned religious traditions and the commitments they share. Second, interfaith advocates have employed the terms to identify the particular ecumenical task of cultivating harmonious relations between these three traditions. Finally, in wider public discourses, they have served as descriptors of the religious character of American culture, democracy, and/or national identity. Over time, the terms “Judeo-Christian” and “Abrahamic” have each become important ways of talking about the contributions of the world’s largest monotheistic religions to politics and culture in the United States. However, in American public discourse, “Judeo-Christian” formulations have thus far demonstrated greater reach than “Abrahamic” ones. Between roughly World War II and the mid-1970s, when the United States rose to superpower status and assumed the helm of the Western civilizational project, the idea of America as, in various senses, a Judeo-Christian nation became commonplace. But unlike “Judeo-Christian,” which maps onto a discrete geographical region and a long-standing cultural project, “Abrahamic” tends to be used more narrowly to indicate a set of historically meaningful but geographically diffuse relationships that have become the subject of scholarly and ecumenical concern. Moreover, “Judeo-Christian” emerged in the wake of a massive influx of Jewish and Catholic immigrants between 1880 and 1920 that reshaped the American religious landscape. “Abrahamic” has likewise become more widespread since the immigration reforms of the mid-1960s, which began to bring greater numbers of Muslim immigrants to America’s shores. But the growing embrace of multiculturalism has largely militated against the widespread use of “Abrahamic” as a descriptor of American identity. Proponents and opponents of these terms have vigorously debated their strengths and weaknesses, their uses and abuses. Yet, despite the controversies over their meaning and relevance, “Judeo-Christian” and “Abrahamic” remain important ways of describing aspects of the American landscape in a multireligious age.

Article

Gods in Ancient Egypt  

Oskar Kaelin

The ancient Egyptians were surrounded by various manifestations of their many gods. Though their gods usually lived in heaven or in the netherworlds, they were permanently represented on earth by monuments, statues, symbols, animals, and plants, as well as by social concepts. The Egyptians described their gods by various names and images, always aware that in the end their true personalities and characters remained elusive. The ancient Egyptian universe comprised heaven, earth, and netherworld, all part of creation and surrounded by eternal darkness. Though separate areas, they were permeable for the gods and the dead. The universe ran smoothly as long as there was respect and cooperation between them and the living. This formed an ideological, social, and economic cohesion. The gods were powerful but benevolent, and approachable in many ways. The divine king was the hub between the world of the gods and the human sphere. He was the main entity responsible for organizing the supply and welfare of the humans, and for keeping order. During official festivals, the living, the gods, and the dead celebrated together, but there were also a number of more personal ways to approach deities. The various sites of interaction between gods and men formed a vast network connecting all the players: the gods were responsible for creation and abundance, the kings and elites were primarily responsible for ensuring that the system ran according to Maat (“Order”), and the people were responsible for living and working throughout the country. The system of ancient Egyptian gods structured Egyptian ideas, policies, and everyday life from the end of the 4th millennium bce to the rise of Christianity and beyond. The ancient Egyptians’ beliefs were polytheistic, acknowledging the existence of thousands of gods and endless deceased humans. At times, the ancient Egyptians appeared to be henotheistic and would exalt a deity in his or her uniqueness. Moreover, with Akhenaten, they were the first to experiment with monotheism, though that did not last much longer than a decade. The ideas and images created for the Egyptian gods and religion had an impact on many contemporaneous cultures, as well as on later religions.

Article

anti-Semitism, pagan  

Catherine Hezser

Whether the modern term anti-Semitism, popularized by the German anti-Semitic agitator and founder of the League of Antisemites Wilhelm Marr (1819–1904), is appropriate for antiquity is controversial. Scholars have proposed to use alternative terms such as Judeophobia or hatred against Jews instead. Similarly controversial is the question whether racism existed and was directed against Jews in antiquity. Greek and Latin writers’ expression of anti-Jewish arguments and slanderous allegations against Jews need to be investigated within the respective social, political, and cultural contexts in which they occur. Several anti-Jewish writers lived in Egypt and created variant versions of a counter-narrative to the biblical exodus story. Egyptian “anti-Semitism” is usually explained by reference to relations between Jews and non-Jews in Alexandria and the Hellenistic and Roman rulers’ treatment of the different ethnic groups. Recurrent anti-Jewish arguments are directed against beliefs and practices associated with Jews, such as Jewish monotheism, Sabbath observance, circumcision, and abstinence from pork. Rather than being based on detailed knowledge of Judaism or close observance of Jewish practices, they reflect misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Some allegations were entirely fictional. Greek and Roman authors’ claims of their own culture’s superiority over Jews as an ethnic and religious minority flared up in times of rebellion and defeat. Conflicts and clashes also happened in Antioch, Caesarea, and Rome, where Jews were frequently expelled. Major Roman authors expressed hostile views of Jews and Judaism. Roman emperors’ policies shifted between submission and toleration. Not every form of conflict between Jews and others can be called anti-Semitism. When pagans became Christian, traditional pagan attitudes towards Jews merged with Christian anti-Judaism.

Article

The Religious History of the Roman Empire  

John North

Historians of antiquity used to argue that, from the 6th century bce onwards, the religious traditions of Greek and Roman pagans became an empty shell maintained by elites who no longer had any belief in them except as a device for keeping the masses subservient. In recent decades this theory, always highly speculative and over-dependent on the views of ancient philosophers, has been largely abandoned. In fact, down to the 2nd, even the 3rd century ce, pagan worship still seems to have been an important element in the way cities and communities of the Roman Empire worked, sustaining the power of ruling elites, but also defining the way individuals expressed their private concerns and problems. For the overwhelming majority, the old deities kept their hold, and there is a strong tradition of dedications, in fulfillment of vows to gods and goddesses, that bears witness to a continued tradition of individual piety. At the same time, although the Empire was successful from the 1st century bce onwards in maintaining widespread order and prosperity, the nature of city life was changing in fundamental respects. With stability came a high degree of mobility, and cities of both East and West came to find themselves with religious groups living in tense proximity, first of Jews, then of Christians, Manichaeans, and others. To those with a taste for broad generalizations, it has been appealing to interpret these developments as a great conflict between polytheism and monotheism, some rating monotheism as so superior that it could be treated as an inevitable step up in the evolutionary progression of the human race. Paganism was therefore doomed in advance. What is certain is that pagan religion and its many deities became the target of a concentrated attack by the Christian Fathers; but that alone can hardly explain why traditional worship lost its appeal to so many of its adherents in quite a short period of the 4th century ce: pagans suddenly began to abandon age-old practices and join new cults that they had once despised. Efforts at resistance to Christianity, in particular, once thought very important, prove to have been evanescent at best in the light of recent research. To find a new understanding of these very profound changes in religious history, analysis is needed: first, what were the fundamental differences between pagan traditionalism and the competing religions, and, second, how did relations between religious groups change over time. Answers cannot lie in studying only Christians, or only Jews, or only pagans, as is still too often the practice, but rather in the nature of their interactions with one another. The kind of religious competition for members that characterized this situation was quite a new phenomenon to the great majority of the inhabitants of the Empire. They were not accustomed to dealing with competing religious groups each with their own ideas and doctrines. Pagan deities had always needed to attract worshippers to their sanctuaries; but they were defined by myths, rituals, and the functions they performed, not by having distinct theologies or creeds. It was the coming of competition and conflict that radically changed the religious landscape and generated new elements in religious life. Meanwhile, once the Emperors had adopted Christianity, paganism, which had always been involved in the exercise of central power, retreated to the margins.

Article

The Book of Isaiah  

J. Blake Couey

The book of Isaiah is a compilation of prophetic poetry and narratives, named for an 8th-century bce Judahite prophet. As depicted in chapters 1–39, Isaiah declared that Yhwh intended to punish Judah for social and cultic infractions; at the same time, he expressed support for the Davidic monarchy and proclaimed that Jerusalem would not be conquered by the Assyrians. Chapters 40–55 are addressed to a later audience following the conquest of Jerusalem by Babylon in 587 bce. These texts offer reassurance that Jerusalem will be restored and its exiled citizens will return. The final chapters, 56–66, reflect growing disillusionment and conflict in Judah under Persian rule, and the book ends by describing Yhwh’s eschatological destruction of the wicked and vindication of a righteous remnant. The book grew and developed over a period of four to five centuries. Despite its sometimes conflicting perspectives, it is broadly unified by its focus on the fate of Jerusalem, and later editors worked to impose some coherence upon its varied content, as seen by the repeated thematic echoes in Isaiah 1 and 65–66. Isaiah is a sophisticated work of biblical Hebrew poetry, characterized by intricate combinations of imagery and wordplay. It features a high view of divine sovereignty, emphasizing Yhwh’s control over world nations and superiority over all human and divine powers; these ideas contributed to the emergence of monotheism in ancient Judah. The book also articulates diverse responses to imperial domination, even as it chronicles the ebb and flow of Judah’s own imperial aspirations. Striking portrayals of women and gender appear throughout Isaiah, including the extensive personification of Jerusalem as a woman and the comparison of Yhwh to a mother. Isaiah is also notable for its discourse about disability, which serves a variety of rhetorical functions in the book. The impact of Isaiah was felt immediately, as evidenced by the number of copies of the book among the Dead Sea scrolls and citations of it in the New Testament. It greatly impacted the development of important religious ideas, including apocalypticism and belief in resurrection. In Christianity, Isaiah played an important role in reflection upon the nature of Jesus and the inclusion of Gentiles, even as it informed Christian anti-Judaism. The book has had a more complicated reception in Judaism, where it significantly influenced the growth of Zionism. Scholarly study of Isaiah continues to clarify the shape of its final form and history of composition. Current research on the book is increasingly interdisciplinary, engaging metaphor theory, disability studies, and postcolonial thought. The history of the book’s interpretation and reception is another area of growing interest.

Article

Religious Values and Worldviews  

Raja M. Ali Saleem

Values are enduring beliefs that impact human actions and behavior. They are conflated with norms, morals, traits, and attitudes, but they are different. Worldviews, held consciously or unconsciously, are interpretive frameworks or a set of presuppositions about the basic constitution of reality that provides the foundation for people’s lives. Religious values can be specific to a religion or universally shared. In the developed world, religious values are losing their potency, but in developing countries, where people are existentially insecure, these values still guide individual and social action and behavior. Although people have had religious worldviews from times immemorial, a conscious effort to develop and present such worldviews to counter more secular worldviews was first initiated in the late 19th century. It was thought that religions, particularly Christianity, could better withstand the onslaught of secularization and modernization by presenting themselves as worldviews. Since then, the presentation of religions as worldviews has gained momentum, and the initiative by a few Protestant evangelicals has spawned hundreds of articles, books, courses, and workshops that cover almost all major religious worldviews.