Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World

Course No. 6340
Professor Glenn S. Holland, Ph.D.
Allegheny College
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Course Overview

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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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

About Your Professor

Glenn S. Holland, Ph.D.
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,...
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Reviews

Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World is rated 3.7 out of 5 by 58.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good content, poor delivery Religions in the Ancient Mediterranean World, the content is mostly good but the presentation is poor. Professor Holland reads from the outline and rarely adds anything not in the outline. Professor Holland is not well read in Old and New Testament scripture as he makes points based on a cursory reading of the text but does not understand the context. I am tired of the same studio scene, please find another one. Use of graphics, photos and videos are lacking.
Date published: 2017-08-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Do not watch these DVDs while laying down... I borrowed Part 1 of this course from the library. Two DVDs. Stretched out on the couch on 2 occasions to watch & listen. Fell asleep both times. Even watching from a chair, my concentration kept wandering away. I have never had this reaction before; notably while watching Joseph Campbell's longish videos on mythology, I have never lost consciousness (figuratively). Difference? Campbell had a pedagogical manner of making subject matter interesting. Prof Holland comes across like a robotic "new soviet man" of the 1960s testifying before a kangaroo court; just the facts, no embellishment, no emphasis, no excitement. Having said that, I think the scope and content of the course itself are absolutely marvelous for someone seeking a macro-view of ancient religion. Therefore I am still rating it high.
Date published: 2017-05-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from informative Excellent detail, added asides of humor. Informative.
Date published: 2017-04-09
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not on Par With Other TC courses I love the Great Courses. I listen to one or more almost daily. In fact, I look forward to getting up and streaming a couple of lectures during my morning workout. This is the first course I purchased which I feel like I must endure rather than enjoy. First, the lecturer reads his notes verbatim in a monotone and noninflected voice. Dry as dust. Perhaps a cup of coffee (or two) before he lectured would have helped. Second, I am a historian by training and a pastor by vocation. The subject matter is important to me. I do not come to a series like this expecting the lecturer to be an evangelical Christian, or to treat the Bible as though it were a "holy" book. But I expect any good lecturer on a subject like this not to be so-biased as to pass off outdated and thoroughly refuted assertions as though they were irrefutable facts. A couple of examples will suffice. The lecturer asserts that Abraham was a largely mythological figure conjured up by later generations of Israelites, based upon the supposed "fact" that camels were not yet domesticated (when we know camels were used during the time Abraham lived). He asserts confidently that the peoples Abraham encountered in Canaan, did not yet live in Canaan (when we now know they did). I don't expect the lecturer to defend the Old Testament as divine revelation. I do expect him to be a much better historian. I would also like to hear an argument from him (not an another assertion) as to why the Old Testament (its various books and authors) is not a suitable primary source document for understanding the world in which it unfolds, when any other document which fits the author's biases is cited as irrefutable evidence against it--even when their historical worth is much less certain. I'll endure the course to the end. I'll take from it what I can. But this one is a huge disappointment.
Date published: 2017-04-07
Rated 1 out of 5 by from First disappointment ever I have bought well over a dozen different courses from this company and have been extremely happy and satisfied with them all. Till now. Which is sad as the subject matter of this course highly interests me as it was my major in college (Religion and Classical Studies). I could not get past lecture 7. I actually turned it off half way through that lecture. I know the professor means well and I'm am sure he is quite educated on the subject but his teaching style leaves a lot to be desired. He literally reads the lecture from his notes. For a truly enjoyable course, I would recommend anything by Elizabeth Van Diver, Karl Harl (I have 8 of his courses), or Bob Briers (his Egyptian Pharaoh course was our very first purchase)
Date published: 2017-02-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course on audio CD format I liked this course more than many reviewers, maybe partially because I listened to it in audio CD format. The course might have received so many fairly negative reviews because the subject matter is rather technical for most people and not a subject that lends itself to humor or interesting sidelights. Professor Holland has a good speaking style and a very extensive knowledge of the culture and religions of the ancient Mediterranean. I knew a fair amount about the subject before listening to this course, so I had no problem following the lectures. Professor Holland expanded significantly my understanding of the subject.
Date published: 2017-01-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Should've been a 5 star course First off, I have to say the professor obviously put a lot of thought and planning into this presentation. Although the series did not go into as much depth as I would have liked, the breadth of the lectures and the amount of historical time covered was good. There was enough information and detail to establish a basis for further independent research. As for the presentation itself, Dr. Holland appeared to be reading almost verbatum from written notes. This made the lectures very dry and somewhat robotic. The lack of visual aids and the dry presentation make this more appropriate for audio as opposed to video. I always purchase the video format based on the environment in which I view the courses. And I always have the option of going back and reviewing any areas I find confusing. Overall I would not have a problem recommending this course. However with a little fine tuning, it could very well have rated 5.
Date published: 2015-12-05
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Introductory Course Overall, I felt a bit disappointed by this course. I felt this way for two main reasons. First, I had hoped for significantly more depth than that provided in the various history courses I've purchased. For example, I'd have expected more here than covered in History of Ancient Egypt or Between the Rivers. But, for the majority of topics covered, there wasn't that much which was new. Second, the lectures were, as observed by other reviewers, a bit dry. I listened to the audio course and my mind often wandered. There were two significant issues I had. First, I don't like the fantastic leaps that some students of the past tend to make. For example, Holland states that ancient cave dwellers placed bear skulls along ledges in their caves and then concludes that these cave dwellers were therefore worshipping bears. Or bear spirits. Really? Can we jump to that conclusion? When I was young, one of my best friends was from a hunting family. His dad had a significant number of deer, moose, and elk heads mounted on the walls. They were trophies, not objects of worship. Is Holland thinking that an archaeologist in a few thousand years would properly conclude this man was a worshipper of ungulates? If Holland had conveyed this idea as speculation, ok. But it was presented as fact. That just didn't sit well. The second issue I had was with his presentation of Christianity. With nearly all of the rest of the course, it was easy to tell when he was teaching historical fact from when he was teaching religious beliefs. But, for me at least, these lines definitely blurred during the sections on Christianity. Please note: this is definitely not a comparative religion course and he is pretty clear that it is not intended to be so. Rather, it could be thought of as a series of introductory courses to each of the religions he covers. Overall, he does an ok job. If you aren't going to buy the courses on the ancient civilizations but are interested in ancient religions, you might be interested in this course. Otherwise, I'd give it a pass.
Date published: 2015-10-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Difficult Most Great Courses aim for an audience somewhere between adult learner and college student and lean toward the former. This one is strictly a college course. The lectures are dry and scholarly and the graphics are sparse especially in the area of maps. Concentration is required and this is not a course to be entered lightly. Even though this course fit my interest area quite strongly, I must admit to falling asleep several times and rewatching several lectures as a result. The content, however, is quite good. This is essentially a comparative western religions course set from the dawn of civilization through classical times. While the first couple lectures are fairly weak, things pick up once we come into view of the Nile. The contrasts and similarities between the Egyptian and Mesopotamian religions and how they contrast with Jewish Henotheism and eventually Monotheism were the highlight of the course for me. As a Christian with some Jewish blood flowing through my veins, I tend to forget just how revolutionary the belief in a single God who had a specific covenant with your people was 3000 years ago. Greco-Roman beliefs were more of a review for me, but I thought he covered the philosophers well. The way they tried to create order out of the chaos of ancient Greek religion was an interesting angle and has parallels to the conflicts between science and religion even today. Seeing the rise of Christianity and its fusion with a failing Rome to form the Catholic church whose eventual dominance set up the middle ages is always an interesting study. I did feel that Christianity got a bit of a short shrift in what felt like only a handful of lectures for the most important religion in word history to date. I would only recommend this course to folks who are heavily interested in both ancient history and religion and have the patience for a serious lecture series. If you are more interested in the rise of Christendom in Roman times, try Professor Harl's excellent Fall of the Pagans course. For a wider angle, Professor Cary's History of Christian Theology.
Date published: 2015-07-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not the best While the content of the course is comprehensive and covers what you probably want to know from the title it's delivery leaves much to be desired. The professor reads most of it from notes at a lectern. There is very, very limited use of visuals which is inexcusable with modern technology and given the rich library of visuals for this subject area and it's peoples. You could easily get as much from the audio alone as most of the video is of the professor standing and reading his notes. On the good side his reading is ok with inflection and emphasis added. But that's not really teaching, is it? We all know the difference and The Great Courses pays too little attention to that difference. With some constructive critique, and maybe just encouragement to let himself go, I think this professor could do much better. There's a hint of a dry humor which would add greatly to the presentation and I'd guess his students see that much more in the classroom. And as for most of the current courses coming out there should be a AV tech involved to vastly increase the video presentation.
Date published: 2015-06-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Could have been Great This course is going to bother me for a long time to come. The professor knows his material, but you wouldn't know it from the start of the course. His early lectures are his greatest weakness. He asserts theories that are highly divisive amongst the scholarly community. He shows no internal reflection, and does not seem to question the majority view that he puts forward. There is a common joke that many people interested in religious studies in the ancient world should know: if a researcher does not know what something is, it must have ritual or spiritual significance. A good five teaching company courses referenced this, and I have heard it in my college education a number of times as well. Professor Holland seems not to realize this and plainly makes statements about the religious and spiritual beliefs of Neanderthals, Paleolithic and Neolithic peoples, and others without caveats or openly admitting to the highly conjectural nature of those theories. His statement about the Gods reflecting the government and structure of the people who worship them is also something hotly debated and not without immense counter-examples even within the Ancient Mediterranean. His remarks about the formation of Monotheism leaved much to be desired, since he uses Judaism to explain Judaism in a bizarrely circular fashion. It is hard to catch if you do not already know about the development of this theory, but its a theory with only one real case study. Given that Monotheism in a non-Henotheistic form only emerged twice in this world, with the other being a form of Hinduism, the emergence of monotheism should have been one filled with debate and reflect the divergent nature of scholarly community on this issue. Honestly, at this point I was almost done and wanted my money back. And then something changed. It was not so much that Professor Holland added personal reflection or a lack of certainty, but that I had been entering the part of the course that was obviously an area of his expertise. I lost any ability to give more than minor pedantic complaints that would have been unreasonable given the time he could devote to any given detail. While it did not erase my feelings about the first part of the course, it came very near to completely reversing my opinion about its value. I was beginning to respect Professor Holland and realize that this was a good course. Not remarkable, but more than admirable for what it does. Further, while I have my complaints towards Holland's lack of reflection on theory and his bold assertions, the views he put forward were those held by the majority and would garner the most attention in any course on the subject. In the end I would recommend this course to anyone maintaining a highly critical and skeptical mindset, and who is eager to learn more about the subjects once finishing it. If you get frustrated with the early lectures, I would recommend skipping ahead. His greatest weakness is when justifying his generalizations through assertion and inductive reasoning, but when he discusses specific issues his true talent as an expert in his field shines through.
Date published: 2015-06-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exactly What I Wanted I'm an author. I write science fiction and fantasy. I purchased this course hoping to learn more about ancient cultures and their religions, their beliefs and rituals, and how those things develop. I was worried, at first, because this was an audio-only course. I needn't have worried. This course was exactly what I wanted. I gained lots of great material I can use and ideas for stories. I loved it and have suggested it to other people I know with similar interests. The delivery is dry at times, pedantic here and there, but it also includes some nice bits of humor. I'll definitely look for other courses by this professor.
Date published: 2015-06-12
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good content but not presented well I have purchased finished over 20 Great Courses. This course was a struggle to complete. The content is very detailed but Professor Holland's presentation was not good. He appeared very dependent on his notes and the lectern. A few times, I thought he might move away from the lectern and attempt to engage with the audience, but within a few seconds he was back behind the lectern reading from his notes. This wouldn't matter if one was listening to an audio version of the lectures, but visually he appeared to keep his audience at a distance. I am a bit surprised TGCs producers did not notice this and suggest he use the lectern and his notes less.
Date published: 2015-01-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Ancient Mediterranean Religion: The Sacred Within This course is a scholarly survey of religion in the ancient Mediterranean world. The scope of Professor Glenn Holland’s vision is the Western-cradle of civilization itself. Explore Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria-Palestine, Greece, and the Roman Empire; sources range from archeology / prehistoric religious practices, literary masterpieces / epics and wisdom writings, narrative stories revealing common religious experiences from the literal to the metaphorical / comparative pantheons of gods and goddesses / mythologies. This encyclopedic vision is developmental and comparative uncovering similarities and differences among religious cultures: polytheism, henotheism, and monotheism are presented as dynamic structures of existential religious, philosophical, and sacred experience in historical context. The idea and passion of a religious ultimate concern is discussed from an inner personal experience (phenomenological / theological) to the outward manifestations of the sacred and its rupture into human history (philosophical / sociological). This functional and working definition is constructed from the theologian Rudolf Otto and the sociologist Emile Durkheim. The phenomenon of awesomeness, mysteriousness, and transcendent otherness is its innermost vision; the moral community / church, the sacred / profane social categories of unified beliefs and ritual practices are its outward manifestations of the human condition and its relation to the sacred realm which permeates and gives meaning to human existence itself in an otherwise uncertain world of finitude. Here the problem of language raises its head because it is empirical and limited to the everyday physical environment of things; but in its desire to describe, explain, and understand ultimate reality, it necessarily is metaphorical and transcendent. Its logos / reason is the inner spark of human nature’s share of divinity conditioned and subject to natural laws but not determined by them, and therefore transcends materiality and opens unto the sacred realm of experience. The professor’s voice is stabilizing and constant throughout these lectures in contrast to an incessantly changing world of variable cultural experiences; it is driven to transcend mere animal existence and vocalize its human / sacred origin. I disagree with various criticisms of the professor’s presentation -- I think they are confusing stability and constancy with being boring and bland – the experience of and search for the sacred is anything but! The previous course: The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity is what raised my interest in this course. There Professor Kenneth Harl touches on the various religious, philosophical beliefs, and practices detailing the history of the Roman Empire while here in Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World I found the detailed religious, philosophical, and wisdom literatures of various historical cultures that evolved into the empire and eventually into the Jesus movement. Christianity at first lacked the intellectual vigor and maturity when compared to pagan intellectuals and critiques; but with time and persecutions, the rise of apologists, philosophers, and theologians brought an ethical way of life into an organized voice with a doctrinal canon, and an intellectual philosophical position now at home with Hellenistic, Roman, and Jewish religious and intellectual thought. (Note: these two courses would make an excellent set if offered by the Teaching Company). This course is recommended for its historical breadth, mythological diversity, cultural scope, epics and literary narratives, and its ultimate respect and concern of the various religious and cultural positions of humankind in its search for the sacred / absolute. Again, highly recommended.
Date published: 2014-12-09
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Great Material; Boring Instructor! The instructor literally puts me to sleep! I have not been able to get through the course yet. Which is a shame, because the material itself is quite rich and interesting. The problem is he drones on in a steady monotone, and if I'm the least bit tired I fall asleep. Good thing this is the DVD and not an audio I'm listening to while driving! I feel so sorry for his students who have to try to sit through his lectures! This instructor needs to stick to writing books. He knows the history and the interrelation of the facts quite well, so far as I can tell. I would expect him to write an excellent book.
Date published: 2014-07-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Rounds out one's historical knowledge If you know a little about ancient history, then this course helps round out an aspect of social history that is often ignored. Too often we project our own concepts of rationality and "sense" back into the ancient past when our concepts would make little to no sense. While our projections may a useful method for preserving the greatness of historical figures in our imagination, it obscures historical reality. Prof Holland's lectures add some much needed context to the social aspects of lived life during these long forgotten and now generally misunderstood eras. I much appreciated how he didn't offer many conclusions so that we could apply our understandings in a manner that would help each of us attempt to make sense of the spiritual expectations of the civilizations he examines. I think he intentionally--and astutely--avoids pontificating on biblical texts so that auditors can deal their own pre-textual understandings. For the careful listener, though, there is substantial contextualization of the religious mindset (this term an anachronism itself--as if it could be disentangled from everyday life) at the foundation of the Roman Principate. If you like to think about or imagine alternative "ways of being," then this course is a must listen.
Date published: 2014-04-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enjoyed very much I listened to each one of the cd's twice, as is my habit with Great Courses I like. I liked this one very much. I noticed some negative reviews to the effect that Prof. Holland is too dry and boring. He gets off to a rocky start so far as elocution is concerned, i.e. he stumbles over his words a bit, but after the first lecture or two he finds his stride and was enjoyable to me. Kudos for a great contribution to spoken history.
Date published: 2014-04-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Dig In This was a course that took me an extremely long time to finish by CD. It is not a course I would consider entertaining, but it is extremely dense, thorough and relevant. While no topic gets extensive coverage, the Professor does assume a basic scholastic knowledge, or at least comfortableness with its approach, of world religions and myth. The Professor does a marvelous job of covering the religion sufficiently so you leave the course with at least a pedestrian understanding of the topic. I slowed down and researched on my own more in depth some of the more unfamiliar topics. The presentation is not overly enjoyable, at least through CD. As I said, it is not one to just enjoy and retain whatever sticks--like a biographic Rufus Fears type of course. I think part of it is the subject of the course, but the Professor takes a decidedly dry approach throughout. He also offers very little editorializing and commenting on anything, and completely avoids making connections to any current religion, debate or issue. That is understandable in a way because the course content is so ambitious on its own without the need to further editorialize. But because of such, I found it hard to move through the course quickly. I typically listen to as many CDs as my trip will allow--but this one found me stopping more frequently or sometimes, just listening to the same course again. I would recommend this to anyone interested in the topic, but if you are not interested in the topic, it might be a bit too much. Since I am interested in the topic and had a working knowledge of at least the basics, it was worthwhile journey.
Date published: 2013-06-13
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Most Boring Ever Unbelievable how such an interesting topic could be presented in such a BORING manner. Thank goodness I didn't pay for this... it was a gift. I have bought many Great Courses lectures. I feel sorry for the prof... but his presentation wouldn't pass a Lions' Club yawn;) I have fallen asleep even in the lecture on Isis, one of my favorite goddess subjects. Pleeeez... get someone else for this topic.
Date published: 2013-02-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting Course Professor Holland does a nice job of producing a survey of the history of religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World. This is a challenging topic because of the amount of material that must be covered. Professor Holland has a pleasant speaking voice. He chose his topics well and did a nice job covering the important points of the various major religions that were covered. I enjoyed his dry sense of humor. For a TTC junkie like me, much of the material covered in this course was a review of material covered in other courses. However, it is always educational to hear the material covered by another professor who is providing a different prospective. I did find that the course was somewhat lacking structure. While not terrible, I did find it a little difficult to follow and remember the volume of facts provided in each segment of this course. In short, I agree with other reviewers. This course is good, but not great. I would recommend it for people who already have an interest in the topic. If one doesn't, perhaps one should consider one of the many other excellent courses by TTC.
Date published: 2013-01-22
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not one of My Favorites This one's a disappointment, compared to most of the other (30-odd?) courses to which I've listened. Plodding, detail without much context or framework. But my main complaint is how he danced around the contentious issues of history and assembly of Biblical texts. I don't mean to fault his views here because it's not at all clear to me what they are but I'd appreciate a candid account of what he understands the issues to be, with at least some thoughts as to how they should be understood.
Date published: 2012-04-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Excellent Introduction to the Subject While the professor for this course is not an entertainer, his lectures are solid, well planned, and very knowledgeable. I would rank him among the top 10% of professors I had in college. The course itself was just what my wife and I were looking for to gain some insight into the religions that developed around the Mediterranean over the last several thousand years. This course certainly fulfills this requirement and I would recommend it to anybody who wants to understand the ancient roots of western religious thought. .
Date published: 2011-12-03
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Hard to Stay Awake Maybe it's me, but, the Professor's presentation put me to sleep. I'm sure he knows his subject but I found it very difficult to stay focused. If you can handle his teaching style, you probably will find the subject matter worthwhile.
Date published: 2011-11-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Complex, graduate level This is a good, not a great course. It is very diverse with not only religion, but large doses of ancient history, literature, philosophy, myth and sociology. Dr Holland does a good job. He is dry at times. He certainly is not in the elite tier of GC instructors like Fears, Brier or Greenberg. LIke others have mentioned, this course is best appreciated by those with some background in the above subjects. The GC certainly has courses that do this nicely. I have recommend this course. But should add, it is for those with a particular interest in this area, Others may be better served elsewhere.
Date published: 2011-10-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good, not Great I've now completed well over twenty of The Great Courses, on a variety of subjects, but this is the first I've reviewed. This course left me wanting more, in both a good and a bad way. I wanted more lectures on every culture discussed, because the content was so engaging. I wanted more detail in every lecture, because, as a survey, the brush strokes were necessarily pretty broad, and I'd hoped to hear more about religious practice in daily life. I wanted a more spontaneous delivery from the lecturer, for although Prof. Holland is clearly an expert on the subject matter, I found my attention wandered (briefly) during every lecture because his overall presentation was rather detached. I bought the DVD version of the course, but often found myself wondering why I spent the extra money. I wanted more eye candy. From a visual standpoint, the course is overly spare. I felt many opportunities were missed to fix a place, or a story, or a concept more firmly in the student's mind because no map, or image, or definition, was presented. The lack of ancillary visual content is my strongest objection to the DVD version of this course, because I think it resulted from sheer halfheartedness on the part of the lecturer and the course developers. On the other hand, Dr. Holland has, as other reviewers have mentioned, a delightfully dry sense of humor. He knows his stuff, and some of his lectures are gems throughout. I'd single out those on "Syria-Palestine -- The Problem of Evil", "Women's Religious Roles in the Early Empire", and, most especially, the final summary lecture as the three I enjoyed the most. So, a good, solid course, but not a spectacular one. If you opt for the CD version over the DVDs, you're not really missing anything.
Date published: 2011-10-15
Rated 1 out of 5 by from far short of expectations First, it is a total waste to spend money on the DVD version, as opposed to the CD version because of the extreme paucity of illustrations, especially when the professor describes the appearance of something, that ought be illustrated. There are certainly more archeological findings than the few shown that are available for such an important subject, that would be direct from the hand of those who so worshiped, but they are not to be seen here in this presentation. I find a serious problem that, typically, descriptions of deities and religion are presented more in terms of detailed classification, without providing any sense whatsoever of what these gods provided to the people in terms of meaning and explanation in their individual lives. What could this mean to the farmer or herdsman? How were the concepts of the deities used in controlling or inspiring the people by the leaders? Were these bottom up developments, or top down means of control? How did the realities of nature, and the human spirit give rise to the development of the taxonomy of the gods? Fundamentally, the course is religion without a soul, and without any clue as to how it came about. A what, with no clue as to how or why. I do not recommend this course, however scholarly it might be.
Date published: 2011-08-12
Rated 2 out of 5 by from His delivery is too mechanical and focused on details rather than context. For casual learners like me, I need a broad context for all the topics that are discussed. Specific example: in one lecture, he goes on and on and describes the gods and goddesses of ancient Egyptian religion. After just a few minutes, I was already lost with all the details - no way I was going to remember any of the stories on how various gods were created let alone their names. For me, what he really needed to do was focus on comparative study of the ancient Egyptian religion to other religions including modern ones and provide details of that religion for specific examples. He never discussed the biggest curiosity I had when I bought his lectures: why did monotheism become dominant and more specifically why and how did Christianity and Islam come to dominate? Although I'm sure there's no definitive answers to these questions, I am curious what some speculations are among the current scholars and experts.
Date published: 2011-07-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well done review; recommended IF . . . This is a very well done survey of the religions of ancient Mediterranean civilizations. It is certainly an overview, but provides the essentials of the various religions and their contexts, including discussions of how and why they came to have their particular characteristics. Prof. Holland also gives his assessment of how the religions contributed to the lives of their believers, and I found the final lecture, which summarized this aspect, to be outstanding. Importantly, the "winner" - ethical monotheism - was not privileged, but treated fairly and equally with its many competitors. Prof. Holland is well-spoken, articulate, and very organized, and has the driest sense of humor of any TC prof that I have heard - which is a good thing! (With respect though, Prof. Holland, your auditors would appreciate your learning to properly pronounce "sanctuary," and "Uranus", and I personally found what is apparently the British pronunciation of "Judaism" to be quite off-putting.) I definitely recommend this course - IF you already have an interest in ancient cultures or religions. If you do not, I would start with more general courses on ancient history, rather than go directly to this more specialized subject.
Date published: 2011-03-24
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Poor Scholarship The focus of this course is the ancient religions of the Mediterranean basin, including the ancient religions of Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, Canaan, Egypt, Greece and Rome, as well as Israel. The entire set is not what I had hoped it to be. I doesn't give a very good feel for the development and structure of religions outside of the Judeo-Christian realm. Coverage of important texts, like the Gilgamesh epic, leaves much to be desired. Holland offers very little analysis of these non-Israelite religions until the very end of the series, when he offers the pathetic statement of how they all have a unifying notion of our search for the divine. I don't need to suffer through a 48 lecture course for that conclusion. There is no serious comparison and contrast of the various religions, and typically minimal insight into how these religions and their differences affected the various cultures. There were many religions that Holland mostly glosses over, such as the religions of the Ammonites and Edomites, which have substantial source material to work with. Meanwhile, he is quite ready to offer inane criticisms of the Bible, falling into the confusion of the higher school redaction criticism of the texts. Even here, Holland is not up to date on his facts or critical of his assessments, as I would expect of a university professor. As an example, his disagreement with the dating of Abraham simply shows misguided and uninformed criticism. He seems to be most critical of the Judeo-Christian texts since they are endowed with a certain reverence in the Western world. I don't expect him to manifest a similar enthusiastic reverence, but I do hold him accountable for providing a critical review free of personal bias and as eager to prove as well as to disprove the veracity of a the sacred texts at hand. It was difficult to endure to the end this series because of the absence of true scholarship.
Date published: 2011-03-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Profound & entertaining. This course is so good that I was sad when I had finished the last lecture, so I'll be listening again. Through his telling of the religions beginning in Egypt, traveling through the Fertile Cresent, through Palestine, up through Greece, and ending with Christianity as it took over Italy and the Roman Empire I felt I was getting a feel for the evolution of the Western mind's understanding existence. I loved the storie about Innana from Mesopotamia. After watching this I saw the Greek play Phaedra, and enjoyed the play more because of what this series taught me about the Greeks. This course material should be a part of every liberal education.
Date published: 2010-10-24
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