Monday, 31 August 2015

Meanwhile, in Judea...

And while the Greco-Persian Wars were going on, what's that sound we're not hearing? That's the sound of the Jews not rising up and revolting against their Persian overlords. Why not? After nigh-constant warring the Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians (and in coming centuries, their Greek rulers as well), you'd think they'd be all over it. But instead the Hebrews laid down tamely under a Persian satrap and purred like cats in a lake of cream.

Pictured: Israel and Persia

Why? Well, for two reasons that I can see. One, after seventy years in Babylon, plenty of Jewish captives couldn't think of an awful lot of reasons to return to a Jerusalem they had never even seen and their grandparents had never shut up about, so they elected to stay in Babylon instead. Although remaining devout Jews, these Exiles rose to high positions in the imperial bureaucracy, and some even managed high positions at court (see: Esther). That meant there were plenty of sympathetic ears for Jewish grievances.

Apparently she was a white girl from New Orleans

And two – and this is the biggie – Israel was a nation completely defined by its state religion, and the Persians took great care to be religiously tolerant. In fact, more than that, Cyrus the Great established a habit of making offerings to the gods of whatever people he had conquered this week, partly because he didn't need any more enemies (especially supernatural ones), and partly because it was just good statesmanship. I know nobody likes thinking about Iraq these days, but ten years ago we had a perfect demonstration of this sort of thing in Basra, which was kept very quiet thanks to some smart management by the British army. Compare and contrast Najaf and Karbala, left to the tender mercies of U.S. troops on a mission of cultural assimilation, which went off like a double-bunger on Cracker Night. So of course, the first thing the Americans did was complain the British were a bunch of Arab-loving weaklings.
Some Basra residents complain that Britain, whose troops occupy Basra, is turning a blind eye while the religious establishment usurps the running of the city through intimidation and threats against secular residents. Explaining why the British are loath to intervene, Maj. David King, a British spokesman, says: “We are not here to dictate our way of life,” but merely “to provide a basic foundation to get Iraqis back on their feet.” 
America, watch and learn: this is how you run an empire, as the British well knew and so did the Persians. When 537 came around, Cyrus sent the Exiles home and one of his underlings even provided 1,000 darics to rebuild what became the Second Temple, which was consecrated in 516 on the express permission of Darius the Great. Many of the original golden vessels of the first temple, which had been plundered by the Babylonians, were likewise restored on the orders of Cyrus (see: Ezra).

Israel was no longer an independent kingdom, but they were free to gank animals in the Temple, and that was what really mattered. With their cosy relationship with the Persians blossoming, their influence on Persian religion was enormous, changing everything in their cosmology from... oh wait, sorry, I got that backwards. How embarrassing.

It was the Persians that had a profound effect on Judaism.

As I've mentioned, the Persians were followers of the prophet Zoroaster, who intriguingly may have been a contemporary of (though completely unconnected to) Moses. His Persian followers introduced such minor revisions as...

"Cosmic Dualism." Any good Christian today is at pains to point out that Satan is not the "god of evil," a being equal-but-opposite to God, but in Zoroastrianism that's almost exactly how it works. Ahura Mazda, the supreme, ethereal god of wisdom, harmony, order and general all-round goodness, is opposed by a chaotic counterpart called Ahriman, who is, in effect, God of Evil.

Yep, the very idea that the universe is locked in an epic battle between Good And Evil owes everything to Zoroaster, so without him we wouldn't have Star Wars. This separation of Good and Evil had a profound effect on how the Jews viewed YHWH. Before, he was more or less a tribal protector, a Jewish version of Marduk, a source of both light and dark as likely to hand out a dollop of plague as a good harvest. After, he was seen more as a Jewish version of Mazda, dishing out only blessings. This meant there was a lot of leftover evil that needed a driver, so the job ended up falling to Ha-Satan, the Accuser – Satan, who graduated from the supporting cast to become a powerful figure in his own right. You can see glimpses of the old view in the book of Job, a strong contender for the oldest story we have, where Job mutters weird lines like, "Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?" and Satan behaves more like God's prosecuting attorney.

The Afterlife. Before, the Jews believed the dead – all the dead – went to a dreary Hades-like realm called Sheol, "the grave" (Ecclesiastes will seem less like an exercise in clinical depression if you keep this in mind). Under the influence of the Zoroastrians, the idea of a moralised afterlife with heavenly rewards for the good and eternal punishment for the wicked began to gain traction. The sheep were supposedly separated from the goats by means of crossing a bridge, which would be wider or narrower depending on how much good you'd done in life (so, Cracked concluded, "if you wind up in Zoroastrian heaven, avoid the tightrope walkers").

One of the sects of Jesus's day, the Sadducees, refused to believe in the afterlife, mainly because they were hardcore conservatives who stuck by the Torah and firmly rejected all this Persian claptrap (also because they were nobles and temple elites, not grubby commoners. As John Dolan said, "Nihilism’s one great weakness was that it had always been an elite cult, not considered transmissible to the masses... Nirvana was too cold a doctrine for peasants who equated fecundity with happiness").

Their Pharisaic rivals however – and Jesus – took this Persian stuff and ran with it. When on the cross Jesus told the two thieves, "Today you will be in Paradise with me," his word was the Persian pairi daeza, a walled or enclosed garden. It's a word that's trickled down to English through Greek, Latin and French, and one of the few definite Persian loanwords in the Bible – necessary because the Jews didn't have any such word of their own. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that would've been most familiar to the people of Jesus's day, it's also the word used for the Garden of Eden. Jesus's choice of words probably weren't an accident.

Other innovations include apocalyptic literature – the genre of the book of Daniel itself, incidentally – angels & demons and, depending on who you believe, maybe even monotheism itself. That's a fairly unsubstantiated claim, banished to the lunatic fringe of George Tsoukalos types, but it's something to keep in mind when poring over some of the older books of the Bible. Sometimes the editor's pen was a bit rough and bits of the older text get through.

I can already imagine some of my friends arcing up about this, as if my revealing where these ideas came from is the same as saying they're not true. Well, all I can say to that is that what's true is way, way above my paygrade... but Jesus certainly believed it, which ought to be enough for believers, while still containing enough objective truth enough to placate atheists. Personally I just think some people had an encounter with the divine, and like the blind men debating the nature of an elephant, were left fumbling for ways to get the message across, so they borrowed local cultural ideas of what a god is. Like El, the early version of YHWH worshipped by the Patriarchs, who was virtually indistinguishable from any other Canaanite tribal gods: was El the last and complete revelation of YHWH? No, but he was a lie they could understand. Was the YHWH of Moses the last and complete revelation of God's nature? No, but he was a lie the Israelites could understand. Is Paradise really the "walled garden" of a Persian king? No, but it's a lie we can understand. Was Jesus the absolute last and complete revelation of God's nature?

...We shall see. I can tell you, however, that there is a miracle here. A real one. The Jewish people captured by Nebuchadnezzar spent 70 years in Babylon, died of old age, and then their grandchildren and great-grandchildren returned to Jerusalem – all without losing their cultural identity as a people apart, a nation through whom all others would be blessed. Maybe someone knows something I don't and can correct me, but as far as I know, that's unique in all of human history. Conquered people don't keep their previous cultural identity, especially in the ancient Near East where military victory was granted by patron gods. Except this once.

Miracle. And it would be needed again soon, when the next beast of Daniel's vision came on the prowl.

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