I - In the Beginning
The reasoning that taught man that he was cleverer than the animals made him also aware of his own deficiencies. He could catch and kill beasts stronger and fleeter than himself because he could plan ahead, seek out their paths, and construct booby-traps. Later that same foresight led him to the art of farming and conserving his food supplies against the seasonal dearths.
In the lands of marginal rainfall he learnt eventually the technique of digging and lining cisterns, and civilization began. Nevertheless, vast areas of natural resources were outside man’s control. If the animals did not breed there was no hunting. If the rain did not fall the furrowed earth remained barren. Clearly there was a power in the universe that was greater than man, a seemingly arbitrary control of Nature which could make a mockery of man’s hunting and farming skills.
His very existence depended upon maintaining a right relationship with that power, that is, on religion. Interesting as it is to speculate on the precise forms prehistoric religious thought and ritual may have taken, we have in fact very little direct evidence. The cave drawings found in France, Spain, and Italy tell us little more than that man, some ten to twenty thousand years ago was a hunter, and that he may have enacted some kind of sympathetic ritual of slaughter to aid him in the hunt.
This practical use of the graphic arts is paralleled today by Australian aborigines who accompany their symbolic portraiture with ritual mime, dancing, and recitation of traditional epics. Doubtless primitive man of the Paleolithic periods did much the same, but the oral part of his rituals, which alone could adequately explain the drawings, is lost for ever. The relics of his plastic arts, relief carving, and clay modeling emphasize his interest in fecundity.
The Gravettian culture, extending widely over South Russia and central Europe, and spreading to Italy, France, and Spain, abounds in examples of the so-called “mother goddess” figurines. These clay models of women with pendulous breasts, huge buttocks, and distended beffies have obvious sexual and reproductive allusions, as do their male counterparts.
Doubtless all these had magical or religious purposes, but it is not until man has learnt the art of writing that he can communicate with a later age. Only then can we with any real assurance begin to read his mind and thoughts about God. Unfortunately, this only happened comparatively late in his development, in terms of evolutionary time, barely a minute or two ago.
By then he was by no means “primitive”. The first known attempts at connected writing were crude affairs, registering no more than lists of objects and numbers. But their very existence points to an advanced stage of economic administration, which is amply supported by archaeology. The wonder is that man had been able to progress so far without writing, the one facility we should have thought essential for social progress.
How, we are inclined to ask in our “jotting-pad” age, was it possible to administer a region, farm out temple lands, collect revenues, fight wars, and maintain communications over long distances without easy means of documentation? We are apt to forget that in those days they still had memories. The kind of superhuman results promised the modern subscriber to correspondence courses in memory-training must have been commonplace among intelligent people six thousand years ago.
Even today it is not uncommon to find a Muslim who can recite the whole of the Qur’an (Koran), or a Jew who knows long sections of the Bible and Talmud by heart. The first books, then, were the brain’s memory cells, the first pen was the tongue. It was the ability of Homo sapiens to communicate with his fellows, to organize community life, and transmit hard-earned skills from father to son that raised man far above the animals.
It was this same means of communication that brought him in touch with his god, to flatter, cajole, even threaten to obtain the means of life. Experience showed that, as in his human relationships, some words and actions were more effective than others, and there arose a body of uniform ritual and liturgy whose memorizing and enactment was the responsibility of the “holy men” of the community.
When, around 2500 BC, the first great religious poems and epics of the Near East came to be written down, they had behind them already a long history of oral transmission. The fundamental religious conceptions they express go back thousands of years. Yet there were still another fifteen hundred years to go before the earliest text of the Old Testament was composed. It is not, therefore, sufficient to look for the origins of Christianity only within the previous thousand years of Old Testament writing, nor to start the history of Judaism with a supposed dating of the patriarchs around 1750 BC.
The origins of both cults go back into Near Eastern prehistory.
The problem is how to relate specific details of these comparatively late religions with the earliest ideas about god. Our way into the mind of ancient man can only be through his writings, and this is the province of philology, the science of words. We have to seek in the symbols by which he represented his spoken utterances clues to his thinking. The limitations of such study are obvious.
The first is the insufficiency of the early writing to express abstract ideas. Even when the philologist has collected all the texts available, compiled his grammars and dictionaries, and is confident of his decipherment, there still remains the inadequacy of any written word, even of the most advanced languages, to express thought. Even direct speech can fail to convey our meaning, and has to be accompanied with gesture and facial expression. A sign imprinted on wet clay, or even the flourish of the pen on paper, can leave much uncommunicated to the reader, as every poet and lover knows.
Nevertheless, the written word is a symbol of thought; behind it lies an attitude of mind, an emotion, a reasoned hypothesis, to which the reader can to some extent penetrate. It is with words and their meanings that this book is largely concerned.
The study of the relationship between words and the thoughts they express is called “etymology” since it seeks the “true” (Greek etumos) meaning of the word. The etymologist looks for the “root” of the word, that is the inner core which expresses its fundamental or “radical” concept. For example, if we were to seek the root of a modern barbarism like “de-escalate”, we should immediately remove the “de—” and the verbal appendage “—ate”, slice off the initial “e—” as a recognizable prefix, and be left with “scal—” for further study.
The Latin scala means “ladder” and we are clearly on the right track. But at this stage the etymologist will look out for possible vocalic changes occurring between dialects. One of the more common is between 1 and n, and we are not surprised to find that an early form of the root has n in place of I, so that Sanskrit, one of the earliest dialects of Indo-European, has a root skan - with the idea of “going up”.
Sibilants can interchange, also, such as s and z, and short vowels can drop out in speech between consonants, like i between s and c. In fact, we can break down our Indo-European root scan-, “ascend”, still further into two Sumerian syllables, ZIG, “rise”, and AN, “up”. Or again, should we wish to track down the root of our word “rule”, meaning “control, guide, exercise influence over”, etc., we should find that our etymological dictionaries will refer us through an adaptation of Old French back to the Latin regulo, “direct”, connected with regno, “reign”, rex, “king”, and so on.
The root here is plain reg - or the like, and its ultimate source we can now discover by taking our search back another three or four thousand years to the earliest known writing of all, that of ancient Sumer in the Mesopotamian basin. There we find a root RIG, meaning “shepherd”, and, by breaking the word down even further, we can discover the idea behind “shepherd”, that of ensuring the fecundity of the flocks in his charge.
This explains the very common concept that the king was a “shepherd” to his people, since his task was primarily that of looking after the well-being and enrichment of the land and its people. Here etymology has done more than discover the root-meaning of a particular word: it has opened a window on prehistoric philosophic thought. The idea of the shepherd-king’s role in the community did not begin with the invention of writing.
The written word merely expresses a long-held conception. If; then, in our search for the origins of religious cults and mythologies, we can trace their ideas back to the earliest known written texts we can use etymological methods to probe even further into the minds that gave them literary form. Having arrived back at the primitive meaning of a root, the philologist has then to work his way forward again, tracing the way in which writers at different times use that root to express related concepts. For, of course, the meanings of words change; the more often they are used the wider becomes their reference.
Today, with faster and easier means of communication, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain control over the meanings of words, and this at a time when the need for understanding each other is most crucial. In antiquity, people and ideas did not move quite so fast. Travel was not easy; remote areas would stay remote over generations and their languages would preserve old words and linguistic forms long lost in places more open to foreign influence. Religious terminology, which is the special interest of this work, is least susceptible to change.
Even though day-to-day words must develop their meanings to accord with social conditions and the invention of new crafts, communication with the god required a precise unchanging liturgy whose accurate transmission was the first responsibility of the priesthood. In the study of ancient literatures the scholar has to bear in mind that the language of the hymns and epics may well differ considerably from the common tongue of the same period. One of the problems facing the student of Old Testament Hebrew is the probability that the classical tongue of the Bible does not accurately represent the spoken language of the ancient Israelites.
Certainly the vocabulary of the Bible is far too limited in extent to tell us much about the workaday world of ancient Canaan. When it comes to analyzing the linguistic and phonetic structure of biblical Hebrew in terms of actual speech, the conviction grows that what we have is not the spoken dialect of any one community living in a single place at one time, but a kind of mixed, artificial language, composed perhaps of a number of dialects and used specifically r religious purposes.
The importance of a liturgical language from our immediate point of view is that it will have been essentially conservative. It is in such writing that we can expect to find words used in their most primitive sense. If religious terminology in general tends to resist change, this is when more the case with proper names, particularly those of the gods and epic heroes.
It now appears that in many cases these have survived unfaltered over centuries, even millennia, of oral as well as written transmission.
In this one category of words lies the greatest scope for present and future researches into the nature and meaning of the old mythologies. To be able to decipher the name of the god will tell us his prime function and thus the meaning of the prayers and rituals by which he was worshipped. The difficulty in this study has always been that the names are often very much older than the literature in which they occur, and are in- decipherable in that language.
So often the commentator on some Greek myth, for example, has to confess that the hero’s name is “pre-Hellenic”, of uncertain origin and meaning. All that he can do in such cases is to gather together all the references he can find at that character and see if there is some common denominator in the stories or epithets which will give a clue on the meaning of his name. Anyone who has tried this procedure on his own account, or studied in detail the efforts of others, will know too well that the results are often at best tenuous, and the exercise, to say the least, frustrating.
One problem is that the same god or hero is differently described in different places. Zeus merits distinctive epithets and worship in Athens and in Crete, for example. What you expect of your god depends on your physical and spiritual needs in the immediate situation, and the stories you make up about him will reflect the social and ethnic conditions of your own time and place. Clearly, the mythologist can best estimate these local and temporal factors in his material if he knows the god’s original place in the order of nature, that is, if he knows the source and meaning of his name.
The dramatic step forward that is now possible in our researches into the origin of Near Eastern cults and mythologies arises from our ability to make these decipherments. We can now break down god-names like Zeus and Yahweh/Jehovah, and hero-names like Dionysus and Jesus, because it is possible to penetrate the linguistic barriers imposed by the different languages in which their respective literatures have reached us.
We can reach back beyond the Greek of the classics and the New Testament and the Hebrew of the Old Testament to a linguistic source common to all. Furthermore, as might be expected in such a limited geographical area as the Near East, we find that not only have the names a common derivation but many of the religious ideas variously expressed by the different cultures stem from the same basic ideas.
The forms of worship, as far as we can
reconstruct them from our limited literary and archaeological
evidence, may appear quite unrelated, and the stories that
circulated about the gods and heroes may reflect different social
and ethnic backgrounds, but the underlying themes are turning out
often to be the same.
The religion propounded by the New Testament is at root a form of Judaism, but the language in which it is expressed is Greek, a non-Semitic tongue.
Words and names like “Christ”, “Holy Ghost”, “Jesus”, “Joseph”, and “Mary” come through Hebrew channels but have Greek forms or translations in the New Testament. The words of Jesus are quoted freely and often given the weight of incontrovertible authority, but in fact nobody knows for certain what he said, since what we have are translations of a supposedly Aramaic original of which all trace has otherwise been lost.
A large part of Christian scholarship has been devoted to trying to reconstruct the Semitic expressions underlying New Testament phraseology, with varying degrees of success but little absolute certainty. In the forms in which we know them, Greek and Hebrew are very different in vocabulary and grammatical structure. They belong to different language families, the one Indo-European, like Latin and English, the other Semitic, like Aramaic and Arabic.
Translation from one into the other can be at times extremely difficult, since they express not only distinctive linguistic attitudes but underlying philosophies. One impediment to mutual understanding between the Semitic and non-Semitic world today is that mere mechanical translation of, say, Arabic words into English cannot express adequately the intention of the speaker and dangerous misunderstandings can too often arise as a result.
What we have now discovered is that by going far enough back in time it is possible to find a linguistic bridge between these ethnic and cultural groups. However far apart their respective languages and philosophies may have become, they stem from a common, recoverable source, and it is there that any realistic study of Christian and Jewish origins must begin.
The root of Christianity in this sense lies not in the Old Testament, but, like that of Judaism itself, in a pre-Semitic, pre-Hellenic culture that existed in Mesopotamia some two or three thousand years before the earliest Old Testament composition. The Christian doctrine of the fatherhood of God stems not from the paternal relationship of Yahweh to his chosen people but from the naturalistic philosophy that saw the divine creator as a heavenly penis impregnating mother earth.
The idea of divine love came not from
the Israelite prophet’s revelation of the forgiving nature of his
god, but from a very much earlier understanding of the essential
need for balance and reciprocation nature, moral as well as