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The invention of world religions 2,000 years ago

Religion is one of those phenomena that is difficult to discuss because so many people (whether believers or not) have strong emotional investments in their opinions on the topic, and, its nature is quite consequential to everyone (whether believers or not). One of the most distinctive aspects of many religions is that names are important as signifiers or pointers to abstruse concepts. At least at the elite level and in “higher” religions. In antiquity, one can think of the homoousios versus homoiousios debate.

More contemporaneously I have long had arguments with people (including columnists at The New York Times) about the misunderstandings of history and religion entailed by the term “Judeo-Christian.” In the broadest sense, the term alludes to the shared common history of Judaism and Christianity, a valid construct. But more precisely it often misleads people into thinking that there is an affinity between Judaism and Christianity, as opposed to Islam, and that Judaism has been a partner with Christian civilization in the emergence of the West (post-Christian “Greater Europe”).

Christians often misunderstand the nature of Judaism due to the bracketing of “Judeo-Christian” from Islam. Judaism, like Islam as it has developed, is highly orthopraxic (everything kosher is halal, though everything halal is not kosher). It emphasizes theology far less than Christianity, just like Islam.* More importantly, due to the explicit and implicit aspects of supersessionism within Christianity modern Christians tend to view Judaism through the lens of their Old Testament. For them, Judaism is simply the prologue to their own religion. The reality is that modern Judaism is actually more accurately thought of as a sister religion to Christianity, not a parent. Both Rabbinical Judaism and Christianity emerged out of the synthesis of Greco-Roman civilization and Jewish religious traditions of the first few centuries of the Common Era. Theological currents in the broader Islamic and Christian civilizational matrix influenced the development of Rabbinical Judaism, the form we in the United States of America think as “Orthodox.”


The usage of the phrase “Judeo-Christian” after World War II, in particular in the USA, was a nod to religious and cultural pluralism. But, it misleads the historically ignorant about the role of Jews in Western civilization between Late Antiquity and early modernity. The fact is that Jews as a distinct people and culture had almost no influence on the societies in which they lived after the Talmud in its roughly current form came into being, but rather, existed as a parallel culture.** They were prominent as a middlemen minority or scapegoats, but they were not unique in both capacities. The emancipation and integration of Jews as Jew in the latter half the 19th-century has been highly transformative but it is historically atypical.

Ross Reat’s Buddhism: A History has brought home to me that similar phenomena apply to the relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism. To many Westerners and Indians, Buddhism can be thought of as an extension, deviation, or reaction to Hinduism. That is, Buddhism can be thought of as a “daughter religion” of Hinduism. But the reality that I have seen, and which Reat also argues for, is that Indian Buddhism and Indian Hinduism existed in dialectical tension for 1,500 years between 500 BCE and 1000 CE (when Indian Buddhism was intellectually and culturally exhausted, more or less). He suggests that the Advaita Vedanta philosophical tradition within Hinduism, arguably its most influential and prominent intellectual tradition in modern times, shares many more characteristics with classical Indian Buddhism than the variants of Mahayana Buddhism that flourished and evolved in East Asia.***

Though the exact dates of the emergence of Buddhism as a distinct sect are fuzzy, it almost certainly predates 250 BCE, when the Third Buddhist Council was sponsored by the Maurya Emperor Ashoka. A key aspect of Buddhism at this early date is that it was already an international missionary religion, with monks being sent to both the west (the Hellenistic kingdoms) and the east (mainland Southeast Asia). This means that Buddhism was the first missionary religion.

Reading Buddhism: A History it is almost impossible for me to not think about Christopher Beckwith’s thesis in Warriors of the Cloisters: The Central Asian Origins of Science in the Medieval World and S. Frederick’s Starr’s argument in Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane. The institutional structure and intellectual culture in the Buddhist viharas of India and Central Asia clearly prefigure elements and the structure of discourse, debate, and questions, that became prominent among Muslim ulema and Western scholastics. Starr and Beckwith outline the genealogical case explicitly for the importance of Indo-Turanian Buddhism on the intellectual and institutional history of the West and Islam (also see Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road).****

But cultural influence does not move in one direction. Perhaps the clearest evidence of this in Buddhism is the likely Greek stimulus in depicting the form of the Buddha. As in China after the fall of the Han dynasty, it seems that barbarians such as the Greeks were particularly attracted to Buddhism, perhaps because of its abstraction and detachment from ethnic and tribal concreteness. Though some Greeks are known to have become devotees of Hindu gods, the most famous examples of Greek assimilation into Indian religious culture is through patronage and practice of Buddhism. Though one cannot doubt the likely influence that Greek and Indian religious and philosophical traditions had upon each other from the very earliest periods (recall that the Persian Empire included both Greek and Indian regions), the innovation of depicting the Buddha in naturalistic statuary seems to be a clear case where Hellenic cultural forms and skills spread through the Buddhist world (to be modified in East Asia).

This brings me to Reat’s treatment of religious devotionalism and bhakti practices. Though their full flowering in Hinduism began around 1000 CE in regards to organized movements, he traces its roots to a period 1,000 years earlier, and a form of popular Indian religion which expressed itself both in Buddhism and proto-Hinduism. Though there is no assessment as to its endogenous and or exogenous character, it is notable to me that this was the same period when personal salvation religions began to flourish in the Roman and Persian world. Christianity is obviously the most famous and notable instance of its (and Persian Christianity had a long reach far into the eastern reaches of the empire), but Mithraism, the cult of the Great Mother, and Manichaeanism are all instances of sects which became broad movements that arose in this matrix.

It seems clear that the religious forms of the previous millennium were ossified and exhausted. From a Christian perspective, this is most evident in the Jewish practice of the Sadducees, which was conservative and traditional in the literal sense, but has left no legacy.  The monastically focused culture of Buddhism had existed for centuries, perhaps half a millennium, before the emergence of the Roman Empire. But it seems that just as mystery religions were becoming popular in Rome, and mass religion also became a feature of the Persian world, Buddhism and the religious practices of the Brahmins, was being augmented and supplemented by popular movements which had broad-based appeal.

Is the timing here coincidental? Perhaps. But I do not think so. India was firmly within the western zone of the Eurasian oikumene by the Roman period. The maritime trade between the southern regions of India and Arabia and Egypt are well known. The influence of Indian thought on Neo-Platonism seems highly likely, and the Christian and Jewish communities of South India attest to the reverse influence. In North India much of the western zone was periodically under Persian rule or hegemony, and Indian cultural influence moved into the whole Iranian zone through the common matrix of Buddhism.

It is probably not necessary to posit wholesale cultural adoption or emulation to explain the synchronicities. Rather, the modular elements for cultural adaptation to a period of imperial political organization and international trade and interaction were circulating through much of Eurasia. The rapid adaption of Buddhism in China and its clear influence on both Daoism and Confucianism illustrates there was a “demand-side” need. Such clear demarcation is probably not found in the western Eurasian oikumene because Buddhism itself likely borrowed elements from religious innovations in the Greco-Roman world that are more subtle than its tradition of visual representation.

Because religious traditions are so fundamentally important to the self-identity of modern people it is sometimes hard to look at them from a detached distance. By the time of al-Biruni’s anthropology around 1000 CE, it is clear that something recognizable as Hinduism, and some aspect of Hindu (Indian) religious identity, existed within the Indian subcontinent. But, it does seem highly likely that something we’d recognize as Hindu did not in the centuries before the common era. Similarly, Buddhism: A History makes it rather clear that much of what we find distinctive and essential to the religion likely dates to the period after Ashoka when it became relatively common for Indian monarchs to patronize monks and monasteries. The oldest Pali texts imply that the primitive religion of Siddartha was very different, and perhaps unrecognizable, to the religion which became so popular in much of China in the centuries after 300 CE. Just as the Gospel of John seems to depict a very different Jesus Christ from the synoptic gospels, so the early Mahayana descriptions of the Buddhist religion and the nature of the Buddha seem qualitatively different from the traditions which were passed down in the Pali canon and more salient in the Theravada branch of the religion.

Humans operate well in the world of abstract discreteness. Nation-states have specific boundaries. And religions start at a specific state date, often with a prophetic individual. But the reality is more continuous. The further you dig deep into the great “higher religions” you see that they were not a single explosive innovation, but a broad cultural project, which then retcons its own past. This seems even the case with something like the religion of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons), which is often attributed to Joseph Smith, but involved other figures enabling and supporting his prophetic voice, and saw the religion evolve over decades into something that was very different from its Nicene Christian Protestant origins.

Buddhism: A History presents a historical timeline which allows for a reinterpretation of the origin of the “world religions,” what Peter Turchin terms “meta-ethnic identities.” Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Confucianism, all have origins in the earliest centuries of the Iron Age, the period between 1000 BCE and 500 BCE (the roots of Hinduism too date to this period, but by and large Hinduism has remained an Indian phenomenon with the exception of Southeast Asia). But these religions were all very different from what they are today. In fact, it could be argued that their recognizable modern form dates to the period around and after 0 of the common era. This is the period that saw the robust and long-standing emergence of imperial political units which eventually developed strong ideological rationales for their persistence and existence. A powerful demand arose for the sort of salvational religions which became popular, and the expansion of international trade and travel likely brought together the various cultural modules which could be easily snapped together to assemble a functional and useful tradition.

The development of Islam in the period between 600 and 800 CE only a few centuries after devotional forms of Jewish (Christianity), Iranian (Manichaeanism and Mazdaism) and Indian (Buddhism and Hinduism), is then not quite as tardy as one might think (and, I believe Islam developed out of a form of Eastern Christianity in all likelihood). The stability in terms of innovation after this period also makes sense, insofar as the new imperial landscapes were “virgin territory” or an “open niche.” Once these were filled by these new cultural morphs, it would be difficult to displace them. In fact, in general, the displacement occurs through rival religions replacing each other, rather than a new internal innovation.

It seems unlikely that the coming centuries will see the emergence of a new world religion despite the protean nature of modern societies. Rather, the name of the old religions will persist, even as their characteristics transmute and evolve to fit with the times. And, new forms of retconning will occur, just as modern Reform Jews sometimes assert they are in keeping with pre-Pharisaic Judaism, or radical Protestants assert a connection with pre-imperial Christianity.

* I am aware there are highly theologically sophisticated sects within both Judaism and Islam, but these are not mainstream.

** Jewish converts to Christianity and their descendants (e.g., St. Theresa of Avila) have had some influence. But they, and the earliest modern Jews who were notable, such as Spinoza, were fundamentally assimilationists and their Jewishness was not relevant, nor did they have a deep impact on Jewish culture, which they had left behind.

*** This is consonant with the line of thought within modern Hinduism that Indian Buddhism was simply absorbed and integrated into what became Hinduism.

**** Viharas as the precursor to madrassas and colleges. Buddhist forms of debate and commentary as the precursor to hadith scholarship and medieval scholasticism.


3 thoughts on “The invention of world religions 2,000 years ago

  1. I don’t recall hearing of any Greek Buddhists. I suppose if the Indo-Aryans brought the same set of gods along with their language then there should be some similarities between traditional Greek paganism and the proto-Hinduism of that time.

  2. the buddhism of indo-greek kings is well known. but there was no buddhist sangha west of central asia in antiquity (clement of alexandria alludes explicitly to buddhism and hinduism [brahmins] in the 2nd century, so the ideas were widely known).

  3. “In No Man’s Land” Review: By Anthony Grafton of “Judaism and Enlightenment” by Adam Sutcliffe and “The Languages of Paradise: Aryans and Semites, a Match made in Heaven” by Maurice Olender, translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer in New York Review of Books Volume 51, Number 3 · February 26, 2004

    Christian scholars burst into the vast memory palace of the Jews at a time when it was dangerous to do so. Italian communes forced Jews to wear yellow stars; the Catholic kings expelled them from Iberia and southern Italy; and German cities staged ritual murder trials, their central testimony obtained by torture, in which Jews were condemned for killing Christian children to use their blood in the manufacture of matzoh. … Only the boldest Christian scholars … actively defended the Jews’ right to keep their traditions, or described them as rich and profound. .. . Still, the opening of the Jewish tradition caused an intellectual earthquake, and the seismic tremors it sent out shook everything from the structures of theological education to the practice of natural philosophy. …

    Even as Christian thinkers struggled to define what Judaism meant and should mean to their fellows, Jews—of a sort—found a new voice. In the Sephardi community at Amsterdam, many of whose members had little traditional Jewish education, and all of whom were exposed to cultural influences of the most diverse kinds, Jewish thinkers like Isaac Morteira and Uriel da Costa challenged Jewish orthodoxy. Though their texts too were largely suppressed, they had an impact nonetheless—especially on the young Spinoza. When he, in turn, was expelled from the Jewish community, he developed the most radical of all assaults on biblical authority and tradition. …

    In the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Spinoza presented arguments that engaged both with the long arc of Jewish tradition and with the short-term crisis of the Dutch Republic. … The best chapters of Sutcliffe’s book trace the complex ways in which Spinoza became a hero—perhaps the hero —of the Enlightenment, as radicals summarized, applied, developed, and travestied his ideas, sometimes combining them with strange notions from the Hermetic and other traditions. Throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, critical thinkers fought on to understand, classify, and determine Europeans’ duties toward the Jews.

    Throughout the Enlightenment, Sutcliffe concludes, Jews proved a source of trouble and ambiguity. He nicely describes the increasing prominence of actual Jews on the urban scene in Amsterdam, London, and elsewhere, the continued vitality of anti-Jewish stereotypes, and the ambiguities of eighteenth-century thought. … Over the decades, as the din made by these colliding facts and theories battered the ears of the philosophes, Jews remained impossible to fix in any historical or religious pigeonhole. The Enlightenment’s bequest to later periods was less Voltaire’s harsh anti-Semitic rhetoric than a series of ambiguities, which left unclear both what category the Jews belonged in (race? religion? other?) and how public discourse or politics should treat them.

    … Maurice Olender … sees scholarly traditions as central to the modern fate of the Jews. … Olender highlights the late- eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philological revolution, when scholars discovered Sanskrit and tried to redraw the family tree of nations by creating a history of the world’s languages. … They systematically compared the Jews, whom the Bible located at the beginnings of world history and whom comparative theology established as the inventors of monotheism, with the Aryans, whom the Bible had omitted, but whom the new kind of comparative philology identified as the ancestors of modern Europeans and the most creative of all the races. From the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth centuries, as Olender convincingly argues, scholars of very different kinds envisioned the histories of Jews and Aryans as the two long backbones of a double helix. Between them, these traditions formed a body of complementary genetic materials that determined nothing less than the course of history itself. …

    Yet the history of European views of Judaism in the early modern period is even more complex than these excellent books suggest. Sutcliffe and Olender both write as if early modern intellectuals envisioned the Jewish tradition as simple and uniform—a world of Jews who lived in similar communities, followed similar laws, and used the Hebrew language for divine service and biblical study. In fact, however, the Christian Hebraists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries knew perfectly well that this was not true. …

    The authors of these short, packed, and cogent books deserve praise and attention on many counts. They have illuminated lost worlds of passionate and engaged discussion, demonstrated the central part that Judaism played in Christians’ efforts at self-definition, and teased out the ambiguities of Enlightenment and historicism. Not least of all, they have shown how much we still don’t know about the no man’s land in which learned Jewish and Christian armies struggled, over the centuries, by night.

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