Israel Among the Nations

Israel Among the Nations July 27, 2017

The similarities between Israel and paganism have vexed, tantalized, and intrigued Christian thinkers for millennia. It was a central issue in the apologetic writings of the early church, and from the patristic through the medieval period Christian intellectuals attempted to fit paganism within the framework of redemptive history. I have addressed this issue from a theological angle in the body of the book, but here I wish to make some gestures toward an historical account of the religious consensus of antiquity. Is the near-universal presence of holy space, priesthood, purity, and sacrifice evidence of the diffusion of a primordial religion, an expression of a natural sensus divinitatis, a result of the impact of revealed patterns of worship, or some combination of these and other factors

I find a good deal of recent work on this question deeply unsatisfying. There are alternatives that have a long and venerable tradition of Christian scholarship behind it. My alternative will be unconvincing to most, believers as well as unbelievers. To make the case thoroughly would require a fairly radical revision of ancient chronology, a re-assessment of Israel’s involvement with other cultures, and, more dramatically, a determinedly fundamentalist stance on the Bible’s historical accuracy. 

For those who do not share my convictions about the Bible, I offer this appeal: The Bible is an ancient record, arguably a very ancient record, purporting to record actual events involving actual people. Why should it be accorded any less respect as a historical source than any other ancient records? That it has not been accorded such respect for several centuries ultimately reflects anti-Christian prejudice that has been a central impulse of modern European intellectual life. My plea to the skeptic is to be skeptical of his skepticism, and give the Bible a chance to prove itself as a source at least as reliable as extant Egyptian or Mesopotamian sources. (Much of this is drawn from Guy Stroumsa’s A New Science.)

One of the tactics for harmonizing biblical and mythological accounts was the ancient interpretive technique of Euhemerus, who argued that myths were transformations of actual events involving human beings rather than gods. Samuel Bochart was a master of euhemerist speculation, relying on etymological connections to link mythology with biblical history. Combining these techniques, Bochart argued for a connection between Moses and Bacchus: “They were both born in Egypt, both rescued from water, and in due course both fled to Arabia. The dog who served as Bacchus’ devoted companion undoubtedly recalled Moses’ faithful follower Caleb (from kelev, the Hebrew for dog), while Bacchus’ nickname ‘bicornis’ (double-horned) derived from a mistranslation of Exodus 34.29.” 

In the mid-seventeenth century, Theophilus Gale offered a massive defense of the patristic claim that “the wisest of the Heathens stole their choisest Notions and Comtempations, both Philologic, and Philosophic, as wel Natural and Moral, as Divine, from the sacred Oracles.” Among the defenders of this view, he cites Josephus, Origin, Clement, Eusebius, Augustine, but also some lesser figures, both Protestant and Catholic: Steuchus Eugubinus and Ludovicus Vives among the Catholics, and Julius and Josef Scalinger, Serranus, Voffius, Sandford, Heinfius, Bochart, Hammond, Usher, Preston, Owen, and Stillingfleet among Protestants.

According to the Demonstratio Evangelica of 1679, written by Pierre-Daniel Huet, the various mythologies of the world represented so many disguised versions of the story of Moses: “The Egyptian Thoth, the Greek Hermes, the Roman Mercury, the German Wotan, the Gaul Tautates, Osiris, Bacchus, Adonis in Arabia where Moses sojourned, and many other gods, were all masquerades of Moses.” Distorted knowledge of the figure of Moses thus spread throughout the ancient world: “Emperor Julian, in his Hymn to the Sun, mentioned Monimus and Azizus, who were worshipped in Edessa, and Julian himself, quoting Iamblichus, claimed that Monimus is none other than Mercury. Huet noted that Abraham Ibn Ezra, in his commentary on Exodus, stated that Moses’ Egyptian name was Monios.

Like Bochart, Huet established the connections between Moses and the pagan gods, first of all, on superficial etymological similarities. From there, Huet traced the geographic movement of this transformed Moses: From Iran, Mosaicideas reached India, and some clues suggest relations between Hebrews and Eastern Asia. Similarly, since Athanasius Kircher, there had been speculations about possible contacts between China and Egypt.”

This tradition collapsed in the eighteenth century, eroded by biblical criticism, Deism, and general skepticism about Christianity. It may, however, be ripe for a revival. As Jan Bremmer puts it (Greek Religion and Culture, the Bible and the Ancient Near East, xi), new scholarship offers a newly integrated ancient world: “Instead of a Mediterranean and Near East with closed borders, we can now see a world in which an individual area, such as Greece, might be advanced in one sphere, such as politics, but in another, such as literary, might be the grateful beneficiary.”  We can follow religious and mythical motifs as they travel from the east to Greece, and back, and intersect with Israel.  All in all, “attention to cultural and religious borrowing provides us with a much more exciting picture of the ancient world than we used to have.”

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