an evolution of The Book
Universalism is not just an idea. It has had a long and tortuous history in the lands of the West ― lands that are now dominated by religions whose origins are in “The Book.” By “The Book,” of course, I am referring to what is known as the “Bible,” which is a large collection of documents, compiled and organized by religious officials at the time when the nation of Judah was being reconstructed after the Babylonian Captivity, about 600 years before the common era. It contained earlier accounts that were simultaneously religious and historical, of events cherished and passed on by the remnants of people who identified themselves as members of one extended family, the offspring of a man named Abraham, who came from a city in ancient Sumeria, present day Iraq, located where the Euphrates once entered the Persian gulf.
Originally, there was no distinction between religious and historical. Later material began to be included that was more identifiably poetic and moralistic, what people in our time call “religious.” But the Bible was originally constructed on the premise that the history of the nation of Israel (later called Judah) was actually the narrative of the exploits and accomplishments of a near-eastern war god, named Yahweh, who had selected the descendants of that one extended family to be his representatives. The history of those people, who called themselves Hebrews, was the history of Yahweh.
The relationship between the Hebrew people and Yahweh was conceived as contractual. It resulted in what came to be known as the promises of the “Covenant” or Testament.” Yahweh promised he would guarantee success in war and prosperity in peace to the descendants of Abraham in return for obedience, praise, sacrifice and the promotion of his reputation among the gods. It was definitely a quid pro quo. Yahweh was to be their only god, hence idolatry, the worship of other gods, was the greatest of crimes. The worship of Yahweh, which evolved into the Jewish religion, was an ethnic, national, political, necessarily theocratic state of affairs. The relationship maintained these features of national ascendancy until Israel’s fortunes turned permanently sour at the beginning of the sixth century b.c.e. When the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar uprooted the entire population of the kingdom of Judah (what was left of Israel) and deported them to Babylon, it became clear in a way that could not be disputed, that the “contract” between Yahweh and the nation of Israel as traditionally understood had fallen apart.
Since political success was tied to fidelity to Yahweh, it was always assumed that if there was defeat or calamity, it had to be because some “sin,” known or unknown, had been committed by the people to merit Yahweh’s “punishment.” But after the exile, awareness of the overwhelming power of the successive Mesopotamian empires disabused the returning Jews of any hope in their own eventual supremacy in the world of geo-politics, despite Yahweh’s promises; it was dawning on them that defeat was a matter of political impotence, not a punishment for sin. The “contract” had to be re-thought. They were faced with a choice: either abandon Yahweh (which would mean the loss of national identity and absorption into another nation and god), or stay faithful to Yahweh and abandon the traditional terms in which relationship to one’s “god” was to be understood..
New religious thinkers of deep traditional faith who had experienced the exile and come in contact with other “nations” began to look at Yahweh with fresh eyes enlightened by their own widening vision. Authors like the writers of the book of Job and of Qoheleth refused to delude themselves about reality. Face it, they said. Yahweh permits the just to suffer. Why? The ancient formula that all suffering is a punishment for sin . . . that if you suffer it is by default because of you . . . was challenged. But it was not only challenged, the challenge was published and read and its depth and significance recognized, for it came to be included in the collection of the sacred writings of the nation. These included the prophets whose unwavering conviction of Yahweh’s goodness began to adumbrate the importance of justice across national boundaries despite disparities of political power. The very injustice done to Israel by the Assyrians and Babylonians was an affront to Yahweh, not because they were his people, but because injustice was wrong, and Yahweh was the guardian of right and wrong everywhere. The psalmists were clear: the perpetrators of injustice were following other gods, and they should be ashamed. The psalmists also upbraided Yahweh without apology for not punishing those who make the just to suffer, but they never embraced the fiction that suffering was on Yahweh’s initiative. Suffering is caused by human injustice perpetrated by unjust selfish people who follow false gods; Yahweh does not condone injustice, he does not reward those who cause suffering . . . why, he even fails to punish the guilty.
This unmistakable universalism developed in tandem with a growing sense that Yahweh was Israel’s “one” god because, in fact, he was the only god there was. A monotheistic Zoroastrianism had become dominant in Mesopotamia around the time of the exile and seems to have been the religion of Cyrus the Great of Persia who ended the Jewish exile in 538 b.c.e. An earlier monotheism which had a brief ascendancy in Egypt in the reign of Akhenaten was squashed by the religious elite but obviously was not eradicated from people’s minds. Some have suggested that Mosaic monotheism was inspired by that phenomenon.
The conquests of Alexander the Great around 330 b.c.e. introduced Greek philosophical thought to the region and monotheism was clearly part of it. Theological monotheism ― that there was in reality only one god ― as opposed to henotheism which recognized a supreme god among many gods, was a correlate of universalism, because it said unequivocally, the same one god ruled everyone. And the belief that it was the same “God” who legislated the moral code, meant that all of humankind was enjoined by the same morality.
In the second century b.c.e., the successor state to Alexander’s conquests ― the Seleucids ― occasioned a nationalist reaction in Judah known as the Maccabean revolt. It was a reassertion of the vision of a Yahwist theocracy against the Hellenizing that came with Greek domination of the region which was once the chess board for the maneuvers of Egypt and Mesopotamia. After a century of civil war within Israel, the victorious rebels, known as the Hasmoneans, came to rule an independent theocratic Jewish nation of Judah for about 70 years in a respectful alliance with the Seleucid Greeks. That ended in 63 b.c.e. when Judah became a client state of the Roman empire.
In Jesus’ time, the Jewish debate between religious nationalists and those who favored collaboration with the “Greeks” that had been at the root of Judah’s civil wars, continued on in the divisions of Palestinian Jewish society among Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes, with the Pharisees and Essenes disputing between themselves the inheritance of the Maccabean vision. Whether Yahwism was a viable political possibility was an issue that many saw as a specifically religious question, to be solved not by political analysis and a realistic assessment of possibility, but only by an accurate theological interpretation of the “promises of Yahweh.” Not only are there indications that Jesus was well aware of this debate, but also it seems plausible that both Jesus and his cousin John had been associated in some way with the Essenes. Reports in all the gospels seem to indicate that Jesus believed that an apocalyptic event was about to occur. Was this a retro-projection made by Christian communities suffering Roman persecution? We may never know.
I believe that Jesus’ message contained, tacitly, a universalist insight ― a potential religious “revolution” of huge significance ― derived from the essential premises of Judaism. It was fundamentally the insights of Job, Qoheleth, the later prophets and psalms. It was an authentically Jewish development that transcended the primacy of the nation of Judah as a political theocracy, and therefore implicitly went beyond the sect (“Judaism”) that was its ideological justification. Jesus, in other words, without making it the center of his vision, embraced the elements of a universalist view that was being spontaneously generated by an evolving Judaism whose ancient forms of expression remained sectarian. Jesus’ views, surely, were spurred in part by a realistic evaluation of the actual course of Mediterranean political history and Israel’s unavoidable subordination. In his frequent evocation of the “kingdom” there was no indication that Jesus meant to lead a return to political power and autonomy. In his statements he was careful about the way he challenged Rome.
That realization ― acknowledging that the ancient promises were not realistic ― had begun as early as the Jews’ exile in Babylon in the 6th century b.c.e. It marked the transformation of Yahweh from a minor Mesopotamian tribal war-god into a supra-national, universal “Deity” of which there could only be one. However, the dream of Israel’s national-tribal ascendancy continued along with these universalist developments. Many Jews remained attached to the fantasies of national autonomy and supremacy until the Jewish-Roman wars of 70 c.e. and 150 c.e. put an end to them for good.
Was Jesus himself ever partisan to those fantasies? The evidence is not entirely clear, but for sure the purport of his message as recorded in the gospels was moral, spiritual and, explicitly non-political. Jesus’ followers, then, picked up the essence of his tribe-transcending insight and began to find ritual and propositional expression for this non-sectarian message about Judaism, authenticated, confirmed and inspired by his extraordinary personality. Jesus was a Jew; he directed himself only to Jews and remained a Jew until his death, but the implication of his religious vision was a universalized Judaism. Given Judaism’s tribal origins, this may have been a bridge too far, for both the Romans and the Jewish authorities of his time concurred in effectuating his elimination.
With Paul of Tarsus, a diaspora Jew who was reared in Greek culture, the embrace of Jesus’ universal insight led to the attempt to find a justification that was not based on a Judaism that remained tribal and sectarian. Jewish universalism was limited to Jesus’ followers. As a “Greek,” Paul’s own membership in the Christian community was the embodiment of Judaic / Christian universalism. Paul found a ground of support in the person of Jesus himself and the divine mandate that Paul believed was created/revealed by Jesus’ death and resurrection. With this new “direct” source of legitimacy, Christianity no longer looked to Judaism as its source of divine authority and relied rather on a “divinely chosen” messiah, the risen Christ, whose “obedience unto death” had earned him “a name above every name” and, surely, a direct line to God himself.
Once Christianity began to function in observable cultic groupings in the Greek-speaking world, the Christians’ “god” ― Christ ― was informally assumed into the pantheon of the Mediterranean gods by the all-tolerant, all-embracing blithely polytheistic Greco-Romans. Jesus’ later ascendancy to the position of “highest god” made Christianity a powerful tool for the legitimation of Roman rule, and that fact was certainly a primary motivating factor for Constantine’s pressure on the bishops to adopt the homoousios at the Council of Nicaea.
Roman rule, unfortunately, was precisely about wealth and power. It was not Jesus’ “kingdom,” even though it appropriated that language for itself. Christianity became the Imperial recapitulation of the tribal theocracy that had originated in the city-state of Rome. This had the effect of totally reversing Jesus’ universalist insight and using his “divine authority” to support the political ambitions of this one particular state which, even after the profession of Christian beliefs, still operated with its more primitive tribal structures. These included a “mandate from heaven” to rule the world for the Empire now made one flesh with its Church. Christianity was dragooned to fulfill the theocratic role once performed by Roman religion; and it turned itself inside out ― literally ― in order to do it.
The changes in Christian priorities occurred well before Constantine and Nicaea. It was a long development that took three hundred years to mature, driven by the Greco-Roman educated classes who came to dominate Christianity, bringing their two tier ― master / slave ― class system and Platonic philosophical idealism with them. The Roman embrace of Christianity by Constantine was the final step in a long process of acculturation that was in fact a much more natural evolution than history has traditionally portrayed. Christianity became the new face of Roman religion: the guarantor of divine protection and the justification for Roman conquest and rule.
The transfer of the functions of state religion for the protection and advancement of the “city”-become-empire from the traditional gods to Christ, tapped the residual theocratic potential embedded in the original Judaic literature from which Jesus emerged, and turned Christianity back into an Old Testament-inspired sectarian expression of a political theocracy: it became the sect of Rome, and effectively turned the “Father” of Jesus back into an ethnic war-god. The universalism that was at the heart of Jesus’ message was annulled and absorbed into Rome’s claim of universal dominion (a corollary of “God’s” providential will), and Jesus’ “kingdom of justice” came to mean simply a minimally oppressive imposition of Roman law.
Jesus spiritualized the word “kingdom” and insisted, as did the prophets, that “God” ruled the hearts of men because he was the Father of them all. The message was just that simple, but the implications have been impossible for western man to swallow; for it meant that we are all one family . . . we are all brothers and sisters, and western Europeans, for some reason, could not accept that. We need a universal religion to express that reality. The Roman Empire’s version of Christianity, which continues among us as the Roman Catholic Church and its “reformed” iterations, is not that religion.
Could this anti-universalist development ever be reversed? A return to the universal insight and message of Jesus would have to refuse all sectarian identification because it would eschew all political pretenses. Jesus’ “kingdom” can only be a metaphor for what rules the heart of man. Augustine’s identification of it with the Roman Empire ― and the Roman Empire and its successors as “God’s” providential will for the diffusion of the “gospel” ― was a theological travesty of the first order. It is this travesty that has come to define an intolerant and supremacist Christianity, the principal tool that created the racism, inequity, and the exploitation of people and the earth characteristic of our times. It has inspired a rebellion of the marginated in virtually all the continents colonized by Christians. The violent rejection and repression of the exploiters in reaction to this demand for justice — effectively reasserting the supremacy of Christian ethnicity — may have already sealed our fate as a species.