The Roots of Modern Ethics in the Ancient Near East


Of the origins of monotheistic religion and ethics.


Jerusalem: The Temple Mount from the time of the Second Temple

When I was in college, the first class I took was World Religions. Though I graduated with an English Literature major, I also had enough credits to be a Religion major. I didn’t need the dual major. I only took the religion classes because they interested me.

I also became a believing Christian during my college years. It was a transition that took place between that World Religion class and the summer between Sophomore and Junior years. It’s a long story that I might tell in detail some time, but the point for now is that I did a lot of reading and thinking about these things in those years and in the decades since. It doesn’t make me a theologian, but I have more than a passing interest.

Early on I learned that the creation story and flood story in Genesis, among other things, have counterparts in other religions, including other religions in the same area of the world – the Ancient Near East. Phoenicians, Assyrians, Persians, and other people groups had similar myths that have been uncovered from that general time period.

Zoroastrianism, in particular, was said to share many attributes similar to the ancient Hebraic view of the world, including the idea a singular creator God, a dualistic cosmology of good and evil, the ultimate destruction of evil, judgment after death, etc. The conjecture when I was in college was that Zoroastrianism may have predated Hebraic thought and influenced it.

It occurred to me at the time, not having any reason to doubt that speculation, that Abraham may have been particularly open to his encounter with God if, indeed, he had lived in an area of the world and in a time in which there was this kind of influence. It made some sense. He was the right guy in the right place with the right influences setting the table for an encounter with God, the Creator of the world.

Recently I did a research on Zoroastrianism. Wikipedia acknowledges that Zoroastrianism has “possible roots dating back to the second millennium BC”, though “recorded history” of Zoroastrianism only dates back to the 5th Century BC. (Wikipedia). Obviously, dating the roots of Zoroastrianism back to the second millennium BC is only conjecture if records of Zoroastrianism only date to the 5th Century BC.

If we date the accounts of Abraham and his descendants according the biblical chronology and references, that history goes far back into the second millennium BC, but a loose consensus of modern archaeologists and theologians reject that dating in favor of first millennium BC dating. (See Wikipedia, for example) Modern scholars don’t take the Bible at face value. In fact, they presumptively dismiss it for its face value.

This aren’t the end of the scholarly views of course. Not by a long shot. Some notable evidence and analysis exists that the modern consensus is wrong about the timeline for the life of Moses, the Exodus and other things. (See for instance Patterns of Evidence: The Moses Controversy) The Patterns of Evidence conjecture is that historians and archaeologists who assume a particular timeline for certain events are not apt to see the evidence for those events if they occurred in a different timeline.

The Patterns of Evidence thesis is that evidence for the events described in the biblical narrative is there if we peer through the lens of the right timeline and look for them in the right time periods. Specifically, the biblical accounts of Moses, the Exodus and entry into the land of Canaan are apparent in the archaeological record and historical data on the biblical timeline (second millennium BC), not in the first millennium timeline applied by modern, skeptical scholars.

Certain archaeological finds, like the Ebla Tablets, also raise questions about the modern scholarly consensus. The importance of “looking” in the right places according to the right timelines is explored in Timing the Walls of Jericho.

Back to Abraham, though, he was reportedly from the area of Ur (southeast Iraq), which is quite a distance from the area of Canaan (later Judea) where he ended up – about 1600 miles in fact. In Ur, he may have come in contact with Zoroastrians and other influences. That intrigued me in college, and so I revisit that thought journey again today.

Abraham would have possibly had some connection with Zoroastrianism, as the conjecture goes, being from Ur (present day Iraq), and not all that far (comparatively speaking) from the birthplace of Zoroastrianism (Northeast Iran or Southwest Afghanistan). Still, southeastern Afghanistan (Ur) is about 2000 miles from northeastern Iran and southwestern Afghanistan. Further, Abraham migrated west toward the Levent, not east 1600 miles toward the area of Zoroastriansim influence.

While it remains possible that Abraham was influenced by Zoroastrians, the distance casts some doubt on that thesis, especially in the second millennium BC. At the same time, Zoroastrianism isn’t, and wasn’t, monotheistic in same the way as Abrahamic religions. (See www.britannica.com and www.qotquestions?.com)

I have not kept up with the state of Ancient Near East history, theology and thought, so this is why I read recently with interest the statements of Dr. William Lane Craig from an interview. William Lane Craig is, perhaps, the preeminent Christian philosopher of the 21st Century. He has debated some  of the sharpest and most respected atheists and agnostics in the world, and he is extremely well-educated.

Thus, when he says something, it carries some weight. He recently commented on the subject matter of this blog piece as follows:

“When these ancient texts were first unearthed by archaeologists in the late 1800s there arose a kind of school of thought among Old Testament scholars called pan-Babylonianism. The belief was very widespread among Old Testament scholars that the biblical stories were borrowed from these ancient Mesopotamian accounts. It is exactly what you described – a method of borrowing and then changing certain features, and these got written down in the Bible. That view has now been overthrown. It is now, I would say, the consensus that the Genesis accounts are not simply borrowed from these other ancient Mesopotamian myths.”

Thus, the conjecture that I learned in college is no longer the predominant view in academia. Apparently, the view that the other Ancient Near Eastern myths influenced the biblical record is no longer the academic consensus.

I remember thinking in college that it didn’t make complete sense to me, but what do I know? Perhaps, Abraham influenced the Zoroastrians, and not the other way around.

(As a side note, we know that the descendants of Abraham had close relationships with Zoroastrians in the time period of the exile. The Babylonian exile ended about 538 BC (the 6th Century) when King Cyrus the Great became the benefactor of the exiled Jews after conquering the Babylonian Empire and released the Jews with his aid to go back to Canaan/Judea. (Encyclopedia Britannica) Cyrus was Persian. Cyrus was a Zoroastrian. Who is to say whether the Zoroastrianism of the conquering Persians influenced Jewish beliefs… or the other way around.)

Craig goes on to comment on the similarities among those ancient myths:

“But what they do share with them is a similar interest in terms of their themes, in terms of their style of literature, so that it’s not a matter of sort of just borrowing, but it would be a matter of addressing the same sorts of issues – the creation of the world, the creation of man, a flood that wiped out the human race. These are common to ancient myths. There is a kind of literary commonality here between these stories and these ancient creation myths that you find in pagan religions. I think most Old Testament scholars wouldn’t have a problem with saying that there can be a sharing of a literary genre or common themes that are addressed by Israel and these ancient pagan myths.”

I have often thought that we should expect to see similarities if there is any truth in any of the ancient myths. After all, the forces of gravity work the same in the Ancient Near East, among the ancient Incas and in modern North America. Truth is truth. If God is God, and the history of man and the world is real history, we should expect to see similarities.

It really isn’t the similarities that are so curious, but the differences. Really, the one main difference that is remarkable is highlighted in his interview:

“Indeed, what you find in Genesis that is really, really startling – it’s almost shocking – when you compare it to these pagan myths is the way in which ancient Israel transcended pagan polytheism and so decisively rejected all of the gods and their vile and immoral behavior in favor of this transcendent view of God as a creator of the entire universe – beyond the universe – and the creator of the sun and the moon and the stars and everything in the world, who is to be worshiped and adored alone, and who is the source of existence of all these things.”

I remember thinking similarly when first studying these things in that World Religions class. How does Abraham go from many gods manifesting themselves in trees, boulders, mountains, wooden and metal idols, and just about anything and everything, to the idea of one supremely transcendent, mysteriously immaterial God? To say it is a paradigm shift is to excel in the understatement.

Further, these pagan gods, like Baal, Marduk, Dagon and many others, were capricious and cruel. They were gods to be appeased, but faith rested uncertainly and uneasily in the appeasement. Ritual appeasements included sacrificing children alive on altars of searing hot metal. There was no reasoning with such gods. Craig continues:

“When you read that against these ancient pagan polytheistic myths one is almost staggered that Israel could have come up with this stuff. This is so different that it’s really, really shocking. I think for us moderns, because we’re familiar with this view of a transcendent creator God, we don’t share this pagan mythological worldview. I think we’re sort of [indisposed] to the shock that these ancient Israelites in the teeth of this overwhelming pagan polytheism affirmed this remarkable view of the Lord God as transcendent creator of everything else.”

For all the modern angst about “the God of the Old Testament” who appears more vengeful and wrathful than we can stomach, the God of the Old Testament was a saint compared to the gods all around Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and the progeny of Abraham’s faith. We have an air of evolutionary sophistication today that belies the roots of that moral superiority that are found in the revolutionary, transcendent words of Jesus (love thy neighbor as yourself) who grounded that ethic solidly in “the God of the Old Testament”.

The God of the Old Testament was reasonable. He wasn’t arbitrary and capricious. He wasn’t a God simply to be appeased; He was a God that invited dialogue: “Come let us reason together”. (Isaiah 1:18) He was a God who sought covenant (relationship).

In some ways, the “golden rule” (as expressed by Jesus) is as radical today as it was in the First Century, and it is grounded in words going back to the second millennia BC (if we accept the biblical timeline). (See Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18) At the very latest (if we concede the more skeptical timeline), we can trace it back to early in the first millennia BC.

While we can’t say for sure whether Zoroastrianism existed back into the second millennium BC or whether it influenced Abraham’s faith, or whether the Abrahamic faith influenced Zoroastrianism in the mid-first millennium BC, the Abrahamic faith took hold and guided centuries of progress in human civilization, from barbaric, conquering hoards to the freedoms and rights of individuals, getting a turbo boost from Jesus of Nazareth. And that is the foundation of the ethics of Western civilization still today.

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