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Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World

Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World

Course No.  6340
Course No.  6340
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Course Overview

About This Course

48 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

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.

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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.

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48 Lectures
  • 1
    Talking About Ancient Religious Cultures
    The lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea provide the basis for most religious beliefs and practices in the modern Western world. Professor Holland previews the major features of the course, which will use stories as a primary means to gain insight into the religious cultures of the region. x
  • 2
    What is Religion?
    What is religion? Our working definition includes the idea of the sacred, the systematic unity of beliefs and practices, and the community created through those common beliefs and practices. x
  • 3
    Early Prehistoric Religion
    This lecture explores the earliest forms of human religious expression by examining the material culture of the Old and Middle Stone Ages. The evidence shows a desire for harmony and equilibrium among human beings, and between human beings and the spiritual world. x
  • 4
    Prehistoric Religion—The Neolithic Era
    We move on to the great revolution in the human way of life represented by the New Stone Age, or Neolithic era, and the acceleration of cultural change that ultimately resulted in the beginnings of the first great civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean world: Egypt and Mesopotamia. x
  • 5
    Egypt—A Unique Religious Culture
    This lecture considers the beginnings of Egyptian civilization and some of its typical depictions of the gods. All of Egyptian religion and its stories refer either directly or indirectly to the three primary realities of life in ancient Egypt: the sun, the Nile, and the divine pharaoh. x
  • 6
    Egyptian Creation Stories and Their Meaning
    There are four means of creation in Mediterranean mythic cosmogonies: creation by making, creation by combat, creation through sexual generation, and creation by word. We study Egyptian creation stories to learn what they tell us about the relationships among gods, humanity, and the cosmos. x
  • 7
    The Egyptian Pantheon
    The Egyptian pantheon may be divided into gods that represent natural phenomena, regional gods, funerary gods, and gods identified with professions. There was inevitable overlap in association and function among the gods, as evidenced by the many solar deities. x
  • 8
    Egyptian Myths of Kingship
    The pharaoh was at the center of Egyptian religious culture. He was responsible for establishing divine order and justice, enabling the proper functioning of the human and divine worlds. His legitimacy and authority were supported by the myth of the contest between Horus and Seth. x
  • 9
    Egyptian Myths of the Underworld
    The Egyptians show more concern with preparation for the afterlife than any other ancient civilization known to us. We examine the range of Egyptian beliefs and practices related to death, especially the spiritual and physical preparation for the dead to enter the realm of Osiris. x
  • 10
    Egypt—The Power of Goddesses
    Goddesses play an important role in Egyptian creation mythology, both as personifications of the cosmic elements and as mothers to new generations of gods. As a group, the Egyptian goddesses display strength, initiative, cleverness, and other virtues traditionally associated with women. x
  • 11
    Egypt—Religion in Everyday Life
    We study official and popular religious practices in ancient Egypt. Official daily rituals included washing, dressing, and "feeding" the cult statue of the temple. Popular religion focused on magic and rituals, including the use of spells and amulets, and attempts to see the future. x
  • 12
    Egypt—The Beginning of Wisdom
    Proverbial wisdom is part of the cultural heritage of all peoples throughout history. We conclude our examination of Egyptian religious culture with a discussion of its literature of ethical instruction, which provides our earliest example of the Mediterranean world's wisdom tradition. x
  • 13
    Mesopotamia—The Land Between the Rivers
    We begin our study of the religious beliefs and practices of Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The region was home to a succession of related but distinct civilizations that shared a common religious culture, albeit one that was constantly evolving through the centuries. x
  • 14
    Mesopotamia—Stories of Creation
    Mesopotamian gods are like overlords in a political hierarchy, but with divine authority and power. This lecture reviews the gods of the Mesopotamian pantheon and discusses two stories, Enuma Elish and the myth of Adapa, that describe the origins of all things and the human situation. x
  • 15
    Mesopotamia—Inanna the Goddess
    The Mesopotamian fertility goddess was worshiped in Sumer as Inanna and later in Babylon as Ishtar. We consider the different attributes, titles, and powers that made her the most important and powerful goddess in the Mesopotamian pantheon. x
  • 16
    Mesopotamia—Gilgamesh the King
    The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest surviving epic poem. This lecture discusses the first part of this haunting masterpiece, which narrates the adventures of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, two heroes who set out on a long journey to slay Humbaba, a monster of the wilderness. x
  • 17
    Mesopotamia—The Search for Eternal Life
    We continue our discussion of The Epic of Gilgamesh by reviewing the two heroes' encounter with Ishtar, which results in Enkidu's death and Gilgamesh's quest for eternal life. The quest has many parallels in the wisdom literature we have already considered. x
  • 18
    Mesopotamia—The Great Flood
    The story of Ut-napishtim and the primeval flood in The Epic of Gilgamesh has clear parallels with the story of another Mesopotamian hero, Atrahasis, and the biblical story of Noah. The differences reflect a fundamental incongruity between Mesopotamian and Israelite conceptions of the divine. x
  • 19
    Ancient Concepts of the Divine
    This lecture looks at the different concepts of the divine that lie behind polytheism (belief in many gods), henotheism (belief and trust in one chief god among the many gods that exist), and monotheism (belief and trust in the one and only God who exists). x
  • 20
    The Gods of Syria-Palestine
    We begin our study of Syria-Palestine, whose chief god was 'El, creator of all things. His son Ba'al, god of storms and fertility, recalls several Mesopotamian myths. The worship of the Lord in Israel was both different from and consistent with other Syro-Palestinian religious traditions. x
  • 21
    Israel's Ancestral History
    The stories about Israel's ancestors in Genesis reflect the life of nomadic herders in the Middle and Late Bronze Ages. We examine these stories and the development of Israelite religious culture in the aftermath of the Exodus, which established a new relationship between the Lord and Israel. x
  • 22
    Israel's National History
    When the Israelites settled in Palestine, their way of life changed profoundly, a change reflected in their religious culture, as Ba'al became a rival to the Lord. We review Israel's history primarily in terms of its evolving understanding of its covenantal obligations to the Lord as the God of Israel. x
  • 23
    Prophecy in the Ancient Near East
    A significant factor in the development of religious culture in Israel during the monarchy was the independent religious voice of prophecy. We consider prophecy as a cross-cultural phenomenon and how it resembles other methods of divining the will of the gods or of foreseeing the future. x
  • 24
    Early Prophecy in Israel
    Scholars have identified three types of prophecy in ancient Israel: guild prophecy carried out by groups under a leader; official prophecy carried out through the royal court or the cult; and independent prophecy carried out by prophets who speak on the Lord's behalf without official sanction. x
  • 25
    Classical Israelite Prophecy
    Continuing our discussion of prophecy, we look at the prophetic messages and careers of some of the great prophets of Israel, those usually referred to as the "writing prophets" because they have biblical books of prophetic oracles named after them. x
  • 26
    Israel's Great Crisis
    This lecture examines the religious crisis that surrounded the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of many of its people to Babylon. We see how the prophets made sense of this disaster, and in doing so, reaffirmed the Lord's faithfulness and loving concern for his people. x
  • 27
    Syria-Palestine—The Problem of Evil
    Polytheistic and henotheistic religions can blame evil on conflicts between gods, but monotheistic religions must reconcile belief in an all-powerful and morally perfect God with the existence of evil. We look at two responses to the problem of evil: the book of Job and apocalyptic literature. x
  • 28
    Early Aegean Civilizations
    We begin our discussion of the civilizations around the Aegean Sea, examining Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations and their religious cultures. The nature of Minoan civilization is deeply mysterious; Mycenaean civilization is the historical setting for events in the Iliad and Odyssey. x
  • 29
    Religious Culture in the Iliad and the Odyssey
    The Dark Age following the Mycenaean era saw a drastic decrease in the scale and quality of life in Greece. Writing disappeared, and memories of the Mycenaean era were preserved in oral stories of gods and heroes, most notably in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. x
  • 30
    Religious Culture in Archaic Greece
    This lecture covers the religious culture of the Archaic Age, a period of robust growth and development that established the basis for Classical Greek culture. Two poetic works, the Homeric Hymns and Hesiod's Theogony, give insight into prevailing beliefs and attitudes towards the gods in the Archaic Age. x
  • 31
    Greece—How Things Came to Be
    The Greek story of creation in Hesiod's Theogony resembles myths from Egypt and Mesopotamia. Similarly, the Greek story of the flood has many points of contact with the Mesopotamian stories of Atrahasis and Ut-napishtim, as well as with the biblical story of Noah. x
  • 32
    Greece—The Goddess
    Although goddesses in polytheistic religious cultures often have associations with fertility, most of them develop beyond this primary identity. This is the case in Greece, where goddesses represent a range of female activities. We look at three: Athena, Demeter, and Aphrodite. x
  • 33
    The Classical Era in Greece
    The Classical Era in ancient Greece fell between the Persian wars and the death of Alexander the Great, when Greek city-states, especially Athens, achieved a remarkable political and cultural synthesis. Greek philosophy from the period saw human reason as a part of divine nature and pursued the virtuous life based on knowledge of the good. x
  • 34
    Greece—Philosophy as Religion
    During the Classical Era many of the elite rejected mythology as unworthy portrayals of the gods, and turned to philosophy as an alternative. We look at philosophy as a means of gaining insight into the divine world and bringing human behavior in line with the divine will. x
  • 35
    Religious Culture in the Hellenistic World
    The conquests of Alexander the Great were accompanied by the growth of Hellenistic culture, as key elements of Classical Greek culture were imposed on the subject nations. Religious synthesis arose when gods, rituals, and mythology of one religious culture were combined with those of another. x
  • 36
    Mystery Religions in the Hellenistic World
    The Hellenistic Era saw a return to the worship of earth-based gods by groups practicing secret rituals. The gods of these "mystery religions" were often fertility deities whose myths were reinterpreted as stories of death and rebirth. We look at these cults as expressions of religious yearnings of the period. x
  • 37
    Mystery Religions from the East
    Apuleius's novel The Golden Ass provides information about two mystery religions: the cult of the Syrian goddess and the mysteries of Isis. The Syrian goddess resembles the Great Mother worshiped in Asia Minor, while Isis came the closest of any ancient god to being the focus of a worldwide religion. x
  • 38
    Roman Religious Culture Before the Empire
    We turn to the religions of ancient Rome by considering its religious culture in the centuries before the beginning of the Roman Empire. The Romans believed the cosmos was suffused with spiritual power they could perceive in groups, places, activities, and the objects of everyday life. x
  • 39
    Rome—Saviors and Divine Men
    Augustus Caesar was accorded divine honors in his lifetime, reflecting the era's need for "savior" figures—gods or humans with the spiritual power to aid suppliants. Another sort of savior was the "divine man," endowed with divine power manifested in wisdom and miraculous works. x
  • 40
    Rome—Divination, Astrology, and Magic
    This lecture looks at three strategies for dealing with the forces of fate: divination was used for discerning the will of the gods in a given situation and gauging how to please them; astrology provided insight into divine intentions; and magic was used for healing, love charms, cursing, and thwarting curses. x
  • 41
    Rome—Critics and Charlatans
    We consider philosophical critiques of Greco-Roman religious traditions. These include attacks on religious beliefs as either unworthy of the true nature of the gods or inconsistent with worldly reality, and criticism of religious people as hypocritical con artists or gullible fools. x
  • 42
    Jesus of Nazareth as a Figure in History
    In this lecture, we start with the hypothesis that Jesus believed he was called to reform the Judaism of his time. This idea is tested and supplemented with widely accepted historical data about Jesus. The result is a theory of Jesus' intentions consistent with his standing as a unique religious thinker. x
  • 43
    Creating Jesus Communities
    The Jesus movement began as a sectarian group within Judaism, with its own rituals and prayers. We discuss the movement's growth and development as a nonconforming religious community in the early Roman Empire, and the break with Judaism that left it open to persecution by Roman authorities. x
  • 44
    Living and Dying for the God(s)
    The idea that death is sometimes preferable to life has a strong grounding in the Greek religious and philosophical tradition. We discuss the idea of martyrdom, and the idea that a person's philosophical or religious convictions are best demonstrated by a fitting death. x
  • 45
    Women's Religious Roles in the Early Empire
    We discuss women's participation in Roman, Jewish, and Christian religious cultures, which included both domestic and official duties. For example, the Vestal Virgins performed priestly duties for the Roman state, and early Christian women served as congregational patrons and missionaries. x
  • 46
    The Jesus Movement in the Greco-Roman World
    Responses to a series of crises in the late 1st century shaped the New Testament and other works of the Jesus movement. We discuss reactions to the Jesus movement among Roman elites, and the movement's attempts to explain its doctrines in philosophical terms. x
  • 47
    The Death and Rebirth of the Old Gods
    Christianity steadily gained strength in Roman society from the late 2nd century onward. This lecture considers how the polytheistic religious heritage of the ancient Mediterranean world was overcome by a triumphant Christianity, and to some extent, synthesized into it. x
  • 48
    Conclusion—Persisting Ideas and Yearnings
    In this final lecture, Professor Holland reviews the major themes of the course and discusses some of the enduring ideas characteristic of ancient Mediterranean religious culture that still exert an influence on religious thinking in the West today. x

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Glenn S. Holland
Ph.D. Glenn S. Holland
Allegheny College

Dr. Glenn S. Holland is the Bishop James Thoburn Professor of Religious Studies at Allegheny College. He earned his B.A. from Stanford University, his M.A. in Theology from the University of Oxford, and his Ph.D. in the Bible and New Testament Studies from the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. Professor Holland is the recipient of several honors and awards, including the Thoburn Chair in Religious Studies in 1992, and the Divisional Professorship in Humanities at Allegheny College in 2003. Professor Holland wrote and edited several books, including Philodemus and the New Testament World and Divine Irony, a study of irony as the adoption of the divine perspectives on events in the human world. Professor Holland is a contributor and assistant editor for the award-winning journal Common Knowledge.

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