Axial sages (900 - 200 BCE approx) spent their creative energy seeking a cure for the spiritual malaise they experienced around them. Today our creative and intellectual energy focuses on science and technology, while our emotions tend to direct our spiritual quest, if there is one. As a result, our society has made breakthroughs in science and technology, but we are vulnerable to indoctrination rather than spiritual growth. Often we tend to believe and follow what we are told by the conventions of our upbringing. A close look at how our religious traditions evolved will help us understand how we arrived at our contemporary religious beliefs and the rituals that accompany them. This is a fascinating story and one that will help us understand the forces that shape human thought and appreciate our mind’s great potential for change and development.
The Hebrew Bible
It is not impossible that many stories repeated throughout human history were originally created to contain deeper levels of meaning. To quote from The Guide for the Perplexed by one of the most celebrated Rabbis, Maimonides (Moses Ben Maimon, 12th Century, Cordoba):
“We must not understand, or take in a literal sense, what is written in the book on the Creation, nor form of it the same ideas which are participated by the generality of mankind. Otherwise our ancient sages would not have so much recommended to us, to hide the real meaning of it, and not to lift the allegorical veil, which covers the truth contained there. When taken in its literal sense, the work gives the most absurd and most extravagant ideas of the Deity. ‘Whosoever should divine its true meaning ought to take great care in not divulging it.’ This is a maxim repeated to us by all our sages, principally concerning the understanding of the work of the six days.” (As quoted by Charles Francois Dupuis: Origine de tous les Cultus ou la Réligion Universelle / Origin of Religious Belief, 1795.)
In much the same way as Greek Homeric tales developed, the Jewish oral tradition in its earliest times included stories absorbed and adapted from the whole region. As early as 725 BCE the Israelites were conquered by Shalmaneser of Assyria. Many Jews were taken into exile in Assyria, while foreigners from Babylon, Persia and surrounding areas were brought to Israel to replace them. The first of the three writers of the Pentateuch (the “five books” being: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) began at about this time to weave legends from Babylon, the Persian Empire and other places into biblical accounts of the Creation and the Deluge.
In 669 BCE Ashurbanipal became ruler of the Assyrian Empire. During his reign he added more to the Library at Nineveh than any of his ancestors had done over the previous two centuries. Much of our knowledge of ancient Babylonian myths and early history comes from his effort. Fragments discovered at the site confirm that Assyrian scribes were tasked to copy Babylonian original tablets inscribed as early as 1,500 years before the first wave of Jews became captive in Babylon. Among these copies were found ancient Babylonian accounts of the creation of the world.
George Smith, the original discoverer in 1876 and translator of the Babylonian epic Enûma Elišh, regarded the events of creation in the Enûma Elišh as being directly comparable to that of Genesis. Another scholar, Alexander Heidel in 1942, in his book the “Babylonian Genesis: the story of creation,” compares the Babylonian creation stories with those contained in Genesis. Heidel insisted that the Biblical Genesis account was unique. Today most scholars agree that although there are significant differences, there are enough similarities in these accounts to indicate that the creation story in the biblical Genesis draws upon a common cultural legacy. For a comparison click here.
Fragments found at the site indicate that the Library comprised of some 10,000 or more inscribed tablets treating almost every branch of knowledge in existence at the time. The Babylonian Izdubar (a literal translation of the ideograph for “Gilgamesh”) legends, Assyrian copies of which were also found on 12 tablets at Nineveh, include the Story of the Flood. The story of the Tower of Babel was also found on tablets there, as was the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. These were all originally written down at least as early as 2,000 BCE from an oral tradition that was very much older.
The Aryan peoples had entered into present-day Iran in the third millennium BCE. Approximately eighteen hundred years later a priest called Zoroaster had a vision that convinced him that the God Ahura Mazda was more than the lord of wisdom and justice; he was not only the benevolent Creator but also the one uncreated Supreme God who existed before everything. As far as we know, this creative insight represents the first ever indication of monotheism. By the end of the second millennium BCE, Zoroastrianism was established throughout Media (Iran).
In 612 BCE these ancient Persians, known as Medians, joined with the Babylonians to defeat the Assyrian Empire. As a consequence, both established their respective authority in the region for about sixty years.
Keep in mind that these early Empires were concerned with expanding power and prosperity, not with retaining their own religious thought as opposed to anyone else’s. “… the ancient religions including Judaism prior to Ezra and Nehemiah were not dogmatic and intolerant to other beliefs. In the ancient Near Eastern religions there is a complete absence of the concept of false faith or of heresy. Nor does there seem to be any notion of racial hatred or any feeling of any form of superiority of one people over another.” (From Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture.)
We can safely assume that ideas about cultural life and religion traveled between the two Empires. King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon was married to Amytis of Media, for whom he built the hanging gardens of Babylon. Through such arrangements, these great powers maintained adjacent realms in equilibrium until about 549 BCE, when Cyrus the Great established the Achaemenid Empire (ca. 550 - 330 BCE) by defeating King Astyages of Media.
In 597 BCE this same Nebuchadnezzar, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, violently ransacked Judah and took the young king Jehoiachin and 8,000 of his people. These were only the most prominent citizens of Judah: professionals, priests, craftsmen, and the wealthy. The “people of the land” (am-hares ) were allowed to stay behind. Once these first Jews arrived in Babylon, religious life, formally focused on Temple ritual and festivals, had to change. Here their thinking became monotheistic and Axial.
“It was during the Captivity that idolatry ceased among the Israelites” (Keys of St. Peter, Bunsen). Before that they “revered and worshipped a Bull called Apis, just as the ancient Egyptians did. They worshiped the sun, the moon, the stars and all the host of heaven. They worshiped fire, and kept it burning on an altar, just as did the Persians and other nations. They worshiped stones, revered an oak tree, and ‘bowed down’ to images. They worshiped a ‘Queen of Heaven’ called the goddess Astarte or Mylitta, and ‘burned incense’ to her. They worshiped Baal, Moloch and Chemosh, and offered up human sacrifices to them, after which in some instances, they ate the victim.” (Bible Myths, and their Parallels in other Religions, Thomas William Doane.)
In Babylon the Jews became fully convinced that Yahweh was the one true God, who could and should be worshipped not through ritual but through their way of life, which now focused around personal transformation and responsibility. These changes in thought were Axial, and had to have been influenced by exposure to the teachings of the first great Axial sage, Zoroaster.