How did people of ancient times cope with the overwhelming mysteries of the universe? The cycles of nature kept predictable time with the sun, moon, and stars; yet, without warning, crops failed, diseases struck, storms wreaked havoc, and empires fell.
In the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, they responded with a rich variety of religious beliefs that have provided some of Western civilization's most powerful texts: the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, the Hebrew Bible, the Greek epics of Homer, Ovid's Metamorphoses, and the New Testament, among many others. Composed largely of stories of human interaction with the divine, these narratives gave ordinary people a window into the unfathomable realm of the sacred.
People also responded with a complex array of religious rituals that survive in the archaeological remains of temples, cultic statues, funerary goods, and household devotional items—artifacts that are among the world's greatest cultural treasures.
In these 48 lectures, Professor Glenn S. Holland uses such textual and archaeological evidence to explore the religious cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world. He covers times from the earliest prehistoric indications of human religious practices to the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity in the 4th century A.D.
You will be introduced to religious traditions of a range of civilizations, including the ancient kingdom of Egypt; Mesopotamia; Syria-Palestine, including Israel and Judah; Minoan civilization on the island of Crete and the successive civilizations of the Greek mainland; and the city of Rome, whose empire dominated the Mediterranean world.
Ancient Roots of Our Culture
These civilizations provided the source of much of our own religious heritage, and each gave rise to a remarkable body of stories, beliefs, and traditions that have had wide-ranging and sometimes surprising influences. For example:
- The Egyptian goddess Isis came closer to becoming the central deity of a worldwide religion than any other traditional god or goddess of the ancient Mediterranean world. In Christianity, Jesus' mother Mary was credited with many of the beneficent qualities of Isis, particularly mercy, and the special intercessory role for those who were her devotees.
- The chief god of the Syro-Palestinian pantheon was 'El. In time his name became the generic word for any god. Many biblical names reflect this change, such as the Hebrew name Michael, which translates as one "who is like God."
- Roman imperial soldiers were especially devoted to the god Mithras, who was born on December 25, the same date that later tradition assigned to the birth of Jesus. According to some accounts, Mithras was also born in the presence of shepherds.
- Perhaps the best-known example of cross-cultural influence among ancient religions is an account of a devastating flood. It appears in the celebrated story of Noah in the Hebrew Bible, and also in Mesopotamian and Greek versions. Notably, in all these accounts, the survivors' first impulse after making landfall is to offer worship.
A Believer's Viewpoint
A distinguished professor of religious studies at Allegheny College, Dr. Holland brings both a historian's and a literary critic's perspective to this fascinating subject. His emphasis is not only on the rituals and mythology of a civilization's official religious culture, but also on the beliefs, practices, and yearnings of the common person. Professor Holland analyzes literary works as a way of seeing a religious culture from the inside, from a believer's point of view.
The course is presented in four parts of 12 lectures each:
Part I introduces the subject and addresses the fundamental question, "What is religion?" Professor Holland traces the development of religious practices from the earliest evidence in the Paleolithic and Mesolithic eras into the Neolithic era, the age that saw the beginnings of the first great Near Eastern civilizations. The first of these civilizations to be considered is Egypt.
Part II moves on to religious culture in ancient Mesopotamia, especially in the cities of Sumer and Babylon, and later Ashur and Nineveh. The concluding four lectures in this part introduce the religious cultures of Syria-Palestine, focusing on the Hebrew kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
Part III continues the study of religious culture in ancient Israel and Judah with lectures on prophecy, the Babylonian exile, and the problem of evil. Professor Holland then shifts to the study of Greek religious cultures, beginning with Minoan civilization on Crete and moving to the civilizations of Mycenae and Athens, as well as the Hellenistic culture established in the wake of the conquests of Alexander the Great.
Part IV opens with a lecture on mystery religions of the East and introduces the study of Roman religion. This final part culminates with the Jesus movement and the eventual triumph of Christianity over traditional Roman religion. The concluding lecture considers the ways religious cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world are most foreign to our own, and the ways they have expressed the enduring religious yearnings of all humanity.
The Triumph of Monotheism
One recurring theme of the course is the contest among the three conceptions of the nature of the divine world:
- Polytheism: In polytheistic religious cultures such as Egypt and Mesopotamia, innumerable gods are organized into a divine hierarchy, and each god is identified with a particular realm of concern. These gods interact much as human beings do, and are under the power of an impersonal force such as Fate.
- Henotheism: A henotheistic system worships one god, usually a national god committed to its people's protection, although other gods are believed to exist. The worship of the Lord in Israel began as a henotheistic culture, based on a covenant by which Israel accepted the Lord as the only god Israel would serve and worship.
- Monotheism: A monotheistic system accepts a single god, in complete control of the cosmos the god created, who is the absolute moral arbiter over creation and who is morally perfect.
Although monotheism is a sophisticated theological position, it is by no means a natural one. It runs counter both to the experience of nature and to society. Nature seems to reflect a combination of powers, some benevolent and some hostile, while human society requires an elaborate hierarchy of participants.
Nonetheless, monotheism has an inherent appeal that eventually prevailed over polytheistic religious cultures in the Mediterranean world. Why? Professor Holland sees several reasons, among them:
- Traditional polytheistic religious cultures are limited because they envision the divine world on a human model.
- The hierarchical arrangement of divinities in polytheism unavoidably directs attention to a relatively few major gods.
- It is natural to wonder whether the gods care about individual worshipers.
- Mediterranean religious culture ultimately demanded a single god as both divine patron and moral arbiter.
The ancient Mediterranean world experienced gradual change over the course of many centuries. The triumph of monotheism was slow in coming but profound in its impact because it offered a new relationship with the divine for most worshipers.
A monotheistic deity requires not only ritual worship, but also correct moral behavior. That single god oversees every aspect of life, and therefore every aspect of life becomes sacred. This concern with moral behavior and proper worship of a single god was offered by the Jesus movement and then later by Christianity.
Professor Holland also uses comparisons among the religious cultures to reveal what is unique about each, and which ideas, practices, and aspirations appear to be typical of all human religious communities.