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God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism
by Jonathan Kirsch

p.1 “Religious intolerance was inevitably born with the belief in one God.”
     --Sigmund Freud,
     Moses and Monotheism

p.2 But, fatefully, monotheism turned out to inspire a ferocity and even a fanaticism that are mostly absent from polytheism. At the heart of polytheism is an open-minded and easygoing approach to religious belief and practice, a willingness to entertain the idea that there are many gods and many ways to worship them. At the heart of monotheism, by contrast, is the sure conviction that only a single god exists, a tendency to regard one’s own rituals and practices as the only way to worship the one true god. The conflict between these two fundamental values is what I call the war of God against the gods--it is a war t hat has been fought with heart-shaking cruelty over the last thirty centuries, and it is a war that is still being fought today.

p.3 But the roots of religious terrorism are not found originally or exclusively in Islamic tradition. Quite the contrary, it begins in the pages of the Bible, and the very first examples of holy war and martyrdom are found in Jewish and Christian history. The opening skirmishes in the war of God against the gods took place in distant biblical antiquity, when Yahweh is shown to decree a holy war against anyone who refuses to acknowledge him as the one and only god worthy of worship. Holy war passes from biblical myth into recorded history during the wars of national liberation fought by the Maccabees against the pagan king of Syria and later by the Zealots against the pagan emperor of Rome, which provide us with the first accounts of men and women who are willing to martyr themselves in the name of God. The banner is taken up by the early Christians in the first century of the Common Era, when they bring the “good news” of Jesus Christ to imperial Rome, where the decisive battle in the war between monotheism and polytheism is fought.

10-11 Monotheism, for example, cruelly punishes the sin of “heresy,” but polytheism does not recognize it as a sin at all. Significantly, “heresy” is derived from the Greek word for “choice,” and the fundamental theology of polytheism honors the worshipper’s freedom to choose among the many gods and goddesses who are believed to exist. Monotheism, by contrast, regards freedom of choice as nothing more than an opportunity for error, and the fundamental theology of monotheism as we find it in the Bible threatens divine punishment for any worshipper who makes the wrong choice. Against the open-mindedness of the pagan Symmachus, who allows that there are many roads to enlightenment and salvation, Bishop Fulgentius (468-533) insists that only a single narrow path leads to God.
     “Of this you can be certain and convinced beyond all doubt,” declares Fulgentius, “not only all pagans, but also all Jews, all heretics and schismatics will go into the everlasting fire which has been prepared for the Devil and his angels.”
     Here is the flash point of the war of God against the gods. The deity who is worshipped in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is described in the Bible as a “jealous” and “wrathful” god, and he is believed to regard the worship of any god other than himself as an “abomination.” The deities who populate the crowded pantheon of classical paganism, by contrast, were believed to be capable of thoroughly human emotions, including envy and anger, but they were never shown to deny one another’s existence or demand the death of someone who worshipped a different god or goddess.
     “The pagan gods, even the gods of mysteries are not jealous of one another,” explains historian and anthropologist Walter Burkert. “ ‘Envy stands outside the divine chorus,’ as the famous saying of Plato’s puts it.”

p.11 The polytheist can live in harmony with the monotheist: “[M]any pagans could still extend to the new worship,” writes historian Robin Lane Fox, “a tolerance which its exclusivity refused to extend to them.” Pagan Rome offered the ultimate gesture of respect to the Jews and Christians by adding the God of Israel to the pantheon of gods and goddesses, where he was called Iao and offered worship along with Apollo and Zeus, Isis and Mithra. “If the Supreme God was unknowable, who was to say which one of the many cults of different peoples was right or wrong?” explains Fox. “At its heart, therefore, pagan theology could extend a peaceful coexistence to any worship which, in turn, was willing.” But the pagans who did so, of course, missed the whole point of monotheism, and the Jews and Christians refused to reciprocate.

p.14 A Jewish man in Israel, for example, was recently moved by his own religious passions to open fire with a machine gun on Muslims at prayer in a mosque at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. A Christian man in America was inspired by his religious passions to pick up a sniper’s rifle and shoot down a doctor who performed abortions. Neither of these true believers would be quick to recognize a kindred spirit in the other, but they both share the tragic legacy of rigorism, a legacy that is deeply rooted in monotheism.

p.24 Here we encounter another new and terrible phenomenon in the history of religion--the fusing of religion and politics into a single instrument of power wielded by a single human being.

p.47 legerdemain?

p.54 More exotic sacrifices depended on the tastes of the particular deity--Artemis, regarded as the protector of women ever since that episode with Agamemnon and his daughter, was believed to favor offerings of eggs, or the testicles of stallions. Prapus was thought to prefer a whole donkey. But human flesh was no longer on the divine menu.

p.62-63 An intriguing example of spiritual overinsurance at work in the pagan world can be teased out of a passage in the Christian Bible, where we are given an account of Paul’s mission to Athens, the seat of classical paganism. “As I passed by, and beheld your devotions,” Paul says of the pagan worship that he had witnessed, “I found an alter with this inscription: To the Unknown God.” Paul believes that the poor benighted pagans are unwittingly offering worship to the Only True God, even though they are ignorant of his history--and he proceeds to reveal it to them: “The unknown God is the one I proclaim to you,” declares Paul. “Since the God who made the world and everything in it is himself the Lord of heaven and earth, he does not make his home in shrines made by human hands.”
     No pagan altar has been found with the inscription that Paul describes, but there is an abundance of archaeological evidence for an ever-so-slightly different inscription: “To The Unknown Gods.” The inscription that Paul saw in Athens probably referred to “gods” in the plural, thus attesting to the anxiety that prompted the pagans to offer worship not only to the hundreds of gods and goddesses whose names they knew but also to deities who were unknown to them. A sacrifice offered at an altar dedicated to the “unknown gods,” as historian Hans-Josef Klauk points out, is like a letter addressed “To whom it may concern.”

p.63 But the open-mindedness of the pagan world was regarded by those who worshipped Yahweh as the True God as its very worst sin. It is exactly what Ezekiel means when he likens Israel to a promiscuous woman who “poured out your harlotries on everyone that passed by,” and it is what prompted the author of the Book of Revelation to characterize Babylon--a code word for Rome--as “the mother of harlots and the abominations of the earth.” By a bitter irony, it was the open-minded and easygoing attitude of paganism that roused the rigorists in Judaism and Christianity to their hottest and ugliest expressions of true belief.

p.65 At certain sublime moments in the Bible, the spirit of toleration that was the core value of paganism is celebrated by some of the kinder, gentler biblical authors. The Israelites are commanded by God not only to respect and protect the “stranger”--a word that refers to anyone who does not belong to the Chosen People--but to love him, too. “The stranger who settles with you in your land shall be treated as the native-born among you,” says Moses in the book of Leviticus, uttering the very first biblical expression of the “golden rule” that was later embraced by Jesus of Nazareth. “You shall love him as a man like yourself because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

p.67 Above all, the war of conquest and extermination is justified as a war on paganism. “You shall tear down their altars, smash their images, and cut down their Asherim”--that is, the upright posts or living trees by which the Canaanite goddess Asherah was worshipped. Crucially, all of the acts of violence carried out by the Israelites are attributed to the God himself. Among the many titles and honorifics used to describe the God of Israel is Elohim Yahweh Sabaoth, which is usually translated as “Lord of Hosts” but also means, “Yahweh, the God of Armies.”

p.80 The Invention of Holy Martyrdom
     The war that the Maccabees fought against Antiochus ended in victory. But, significantly, the Book of Maccabees preserves the memory of those moments when the worshippers of Yahweh were victims rather than victors. It is a collection of stomach-turning and heartrending accounts of the Pious Ones who preferred to perish by fire or by sword rather than break faith with the Only True God. The most horrific of these tales shows us the ordeal of a mother who is forced to witness Antiochus’s torture of her seven sons in the hope that she will persuade at least one of them to comply with the king’s command to taste a morsel of pork. How she responds to the king’s cruel demand marks the beginning of something new and crucial in the history of monotheism--the invention of the holy martyr.
     The author spares his readers no gruesome detail in describing the ordeal of the Jewish mother and her sons--that’s the whole point of telling the tale in the first place. The seven brothers are beaten with whips and straps, but they are resolute: “We are ready to die,” declares one of the brothers, “rather than break the laws of our fathers.” The outraged king orders that his tongue be cut out, his scalp torn from his skull and his body mutilated. At last, what is left of the young man, still alive, is roasted in a cauldron. One by one, the brothers suffer the same horrific fate until only the youngest remains. The king, maddened by their defiance, demands that the woman use her motherly wiles to persuade her last surviving son to swallow a bit of pork and thus save himself.
     She pretends to agree, but when she addresses her son--speaking in her native tongue so that the king will not understand what she is saying--the heroic mother delivers a very different message. “Do not be afraid of this man,” she boldly counsels her seventh son before the both of them give up their lives. “Accept death and prove yourself worthy of your brothers.”
     Here we are witnessing the birth of a rebellion that is absent from the triumphal passages of the Torah where Yahweh, God of Armies, decrees a holy war against the abominations of paganism. It is the Maccabees, insists Rabbi Emil L. Fackenheim, a Holocaust survivor and a contemporary Jewish philosopher, who literally “invented martyrdom.” And martyrdom, as we shall see, is the moral counterweight of holy war. The soldier of God may delight in taking the enemy’s life, all in the name of the True God. Holy was is the weapon of the powerful and the victorious; martyrdom is the weapon of the weak and the vanquished. Both will be wielded in the war of God against the gods.

p.84 After the death of Herod in 4 B.C.E., Rome left his sons in charge of various provinces of his kingdom, but the whole of Judea was now under Roman occupation. The Romans discovered that Jewish resistance was still alive. Just as one person’s “terrorist” is another person’s “freedom fighter,” the Romans called them “brigands” and “bandits,” but the regarded themselves as holy warriors in a struggle to restore Jewish sovereignty in the land of the Jews. Just like the Maccabees, the resorted to what we would today call acts of terrorism against both the Roman overlords and those of their fellow Jews who were deemed to friendly toward the occupation authorities.
     The so-called Sicarii, for example, were urban guerillas who adopted the tactic of slipping into a crowded public square in Jerusalem, drawing close to some Jewish collaborator, striking him down with the stealthy blow of a dagger (sica) and then disappearing into the crowd again. Precisely because they embraced the old traditions of holy war--like Phinehas and Mattathias, they were “zealous for the Lord”--the ancient Jewish historian Josephus coined a new term to describe the Jewish partisans who resisted the roman occupiers and their Jewish collaborators. He called them Zealots.

p.95-96 By the first century, in fact, perhaps 10 percent of the population of the Roman empire was Jewish, and the readership of prominent Jewish authors like Josephus and Philo of Alexandria, who explained the history and beliefs of Judaism in language that a Hellenist could understand, including the ruling class of pagan Rome.
     Nor was Judaism the only monotheism from the Middle East that offered its teachings to the pagan world. In the first century, the practitioners of a new faith that embraced Jesus of Nazareth as a God-sent savior--a figure known in Jewish tradition as the Messiah (literally, “Anointed One”)--reached the imperial capital. “Messiah” is translated into Greek in the Septuagint as “Christos,” and so the followers of Jesus came to be called “Christians.” They had started out as one of the dozens of sects and schisms within Judaism as it was practiced in Palestine, but now they insisted that they alone knew the proper way to worship the Only True God.
     Here we see the first stirrings of a new kind of rigorism that was ready to erupt into the pagan world. As Christianity emerged from Palestine and spread throughout the Roman empire, the beliefs and practices of the early Christians remained in a state of revolutionary flux. The very idea of Christianity--and, therefore, the organization, leadership and rituals of the Christian church--were something wholly new, and even a theological question as fundamental whether Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God or God himself would still be hotly debated by Christians three centuries after his crucifixion. But the one belief shared by all of the early Christians distinguished them from all the other men and women of the roman empire except the Jews: they were strict and uncompromising monotheists.

p.96 Paganism can be likened to a noisy and colorful bazaar where merchants hawk their wares, each one declaring the superiority of the god or goddess whom he or she is offering to the crowd--Apollo or Aphrodite, Mithra or Isis, and countless others, too. They might try to outshout one another, but they do not engage in brawls.

p.105 The defining moment came when the two factions argued over the fundamental questions of whether to require pagan converts to Christianity to undergo the ancient Jewish rite of circumcision and to comply with the strict dietary laws. Such practices had always tended to keep the Chosen People apart from the pagans among whom they lived, which is precisely what they were intended to do, and thus reassured the Roman authorities that Jewish monotheism did not pose a threat to polytheism; after all, who would voluntarily submit to circumcision and forego the pleasures of the banquet table? Now the followers of Jesus debated the same question among themselves--how could they carry the “good news” about Jesus to the pagans if, at the same time, they were obliged to deliver the bad news about the burdens that Judaism imposed on its converts?

p.109 The offense that the Christians committed against Roman law and tradition was not called or punished as heresy--the whole vocabulary of true belief was alien to paganism. Rather, the Christians were suspected of subversion and treason, and they were accused of acts against public order and civic virtue. A Christian could escape arrest and punishment by turning over his Bible and offering a sacrifice to the gods, thus demonstrating his loyalty and good citizenship. Still, the most pious pagans were outraged by the theological rationale of Christianity, and they roused themselves to a certain rigorism of their own in defense of the Pax Deorum. Like true believers in monotheism, the persecutors of the Christians coined a new word to describe those who denied the very existence of the old gods and goddesses--the Christians were condemned as “atheists.”

p.109-110 The Shameless Darkness

     Christian “atheism” excited rumor among the pagans, who were baffled by what Christians believed and curious about what the Christians did. The atrocity propaganda that was directed against Christianity was all the more plausible because monotheism itself was such a strange idea in the pagan world. After all, if a man or woman was capable of publicly denying the thousand-year-old traditions that had established and preserved the culture of Hellenism and the Roman empire, what else might he or she do in private?
     The mystery was only deepened by the fact that Christian rituals were, by legal and practical necessity, conducted in private. The Christian church was not recognized as a corporate body by Roman law and thus could not own property, and so Christians were forced to use private residences as their gathering places. Later, when Christians found themselves at risk of arrest and imprisonment for the practice of their faith, they were even more secretive--Christian services took place only in hidden rooms and only during hours of darkness. And so, ironically, the pagans suspected the Christians of the same acts of sexual excess and bloody human sacrifice that so obsessed the biblical prophets.
     “[T]hey make love together before they know one another,” goes one especially agitated pagan tract, “for there is a certain amount of lust mixed up with their religion, and they promiscuously call themselves brothers and sisters.” Their rituals of worship were said to include “reverencing” the genitals of their priests, and a jackass “is most improperly consecrated to I cannot imagine what kind of worship.” After feasting and drinking, “[p]eople of every age and sex...couple in abominable lust and shameless darkness.” At the most horrific moment in the initiation ceremonies, a sacrifice is offered in a “suitably corrupt and vicious way” to Jesus of Nazareth, “a man punished for his crimes by the supreme penalty.”

     A baby is smothered with flour and...offered to one to be initiated, who kills it with blows on the floury outer surface. They lap up the blood up thirstily and eagerly share out the limbs.

     Demonizing one’s theological adversaries begins in the Bible, as we have seen, but it can be found in paganism, too. Such slanders are what provoked the official campaign against Christianity, and they were later used to justify even the worst atrocities against the Christians. The gruesome garden party that took place in Nero’s palace, where Christians were burned alive as human torches, is recalled as the first persecution of Christianity by pagan Rome. And Christian tradition counts a total of ten persecutions, ending only with the so-called Great Persecution conducted by the emperor Diocletian (245-316) in the opening years of the fourth century.

p.114 A rather less frightful picture of the persecution of Christians can be pieced together from the ancient sources. Here and there across the vast empire, a few especially hateful magistrates carried out the imperial decrees with real sadism. Elsewhere, the same harsh decrees were enforced only halfheartedly or not at all. A Christian might be permitted to prevail upon a pagan friend or neighbor to make a sacrifice in his place, and an officer who came to seize a forbidden copy of the Christian scriptures might be willing to take a bribe and leave the Bible behind. Some magistrates literally begged the Christians who were brought into their courts to go through the motions of pagan sacrifice in order to provide an excuse for sparing them. “In these relatively favoured circumstances,” observes Robin Lane Fox, “it takes two to make a martyr.” And so, on the occasion when a Christian was actually put to torture and death, his or her own zeal was a necessary element of martyrdom.
     “Unhappy men!” cried one frustrated Roman proconsul to the defiant Christians. “If you are thus weary of your lives, is it so difficult for you to find ropes and precipices?”

p.151 Not every Christian, however, regarded the Peace of the Church as an unalloyed blessing. By the greatest irony of all, the freedom of religion that Licinius and Constantine established at Milan was the source of a wholly new kind of terror. For the true believer in monotheism, as we have already seen, the freedom to embrace any faith raised the risk that some benighted men and women would embrace the wrong faith. For the Christian rigorists, that risk was itself intolerable: “So, in the century opened by the Peace of the Church,” explains Ramsay MacMullen, “more Christians died for their faith at the hands of fellow Christians than had died before in all the persecutions.” With the Peace of the Church begins a new, remarkable and terrible phenomenon--some Christians hastened to turn themselves from the persecuted to the persecutors.

p.170 Christianity also appealed to Constantine’s preference for order over chaos. Polytheism, as we have seen, empowered every person across the Roman empire to seek spiritual truth from whatever source he or she found most appealing, but the church demanded absolute and unquestioning obedience of everyone who had been admitted to communion. “How could Constantine,” asks Alfoldi, “fail to see the advantages of this unique organization?” Constantine had been instructed in the dangers of heresy--a wholly new concept for a lifelong pagan--by the Christian priests who were now among his closest advisers, and he had taken the lessons to heart. “We have received from Divine Providence,” he said of himself, “the supreme favor of being relieved from all error.”

p.189 If Constantine was an early and enthusiastic convert to Christianity, as conventional Christian sources have always claimed, why did he delay his own baptism for so many years? All three of his surviving sons had been baptized and raised as Christians, but Constantine himself never joined them at the baptismal font. The conventional explanation is that deathbed baptism was a common practice in early Christianity--since baptism was believed to cleanse the soul of all sin, some Christians preferred to wait until all opportunity to sin was over. Indeed, Tertullian was distressed at what he called “the cunning postponement of baptism,” and complained that it actually encouraged some men and women to take advantage of the delay by indulging in as much sinning as possible before the baptism.

p.210 Christianity itself, in fact, was tugged and torqued in so many directions by its various contending rigorists, each one condemning the others as apostates and blasphemers, that none of them could plausibly claim to act with the authority of the “orthodox” and “catholic” church. “It is a thing equally deplorable and dangerous,” warned Bishop Hilary of Poiters, “that there are as many creeds as opinions among men.” Indeed, the same zeal that had sustained Christian true believers during the persecutions of the pagan emperors inspired the dissidents who were now persecuted by the Christian emperor.
     At Alexandria, the churches where orthodox clergy still presided were under siege by the legions of the Arian emperor: “Many were killed who may deserve the name of martyrs,” reports Gibbon. “Bishops and presbyters were treated with cruel ignominy; consecrated virgins were stripped naked, scourged and violated.” At Rome, rival candidates for the papacy were championed by rival mobs, and the Christian rioters spilled one another’s blood “in the streets, in the public places, in the baths, and even in the churches.” And, at Constantinople, more than 3000 Christians lost their lives in the battle for the bishopric of the imperial capital: “One of the ecclesiastical historians has observed, as a real fact, not as a figure of rhetoric,” Gibbons points out, “that the well before the church overflowed with a stream of blood.”

p.211 “The great Christian commonwealth seemed drifting into helpless anarchy,” writes Gerald Henry Rendall. “Bishops had become so many centres of confusion and ringleaders of heresy.”
     Even after the practice of paganism had been formally criminalized by Constantius II, in fact, the politics of religion in the Roman empire remained so unsettled that some pagans still hoped--and expected--that the Christian revolution would be defeated by its own true believers, so numerous and so fiercely at odds with one another. “No wild beasts are so hostile to mankind,” Ammianus famously remarked, “as are most of the Christians in their savagery toward one another.” Magnentius may have failed in his effort to restore the worship of the old gods and goddesses, but the pagans consoled themselves with the simple fact that paganism was still the preferred faith of the majority of Romans. What they did not yet suspect that the man who was determined to succeed where Magnentius had failed was not some disgruntled pagan general but the last surviving orphan of Macellum, the young Christian prince called Julian.

p.217 “Some men have a passion for horses, others for birds, others for savage animals,” writes Julian of himself, “but I for books.”

p.225-226 “For though nature did not make [my face] any too handsome, I myself out of sheer perversity have added to it this long beard of mine, to punish it, as it would seem, for this very crime of not being handsome by nature,” Julian later writes of himself in a satirical work titled Mispogon (“Beard Hater”). “For the same reason, I put up with the lice that scamper about in it as though it were a thicket for wild beasts. As though the mere length of my beard were not enough, my head is dishevelled besides, and I seldom have my hair cut or my nails, while my fingers are nearly always black from using a pen.”
     Julian is made to seem almost freakish by a Christian contemporary who claimed to detect his future apostasy in his appearance: “There seemed to me to be no evidence of sound character in his unsteady neck, his twitching and hunched shoulders, his wandering eye with its crazy look, his uncertain and swaying walk, his proud and haughty nose, the ridiculous expressions of his countenance, his uncontrolled and hysterical laughter, the way her jerked his head up and down for no reason, his halting and panting speech,” declares Gregory of Nazianzus, a Christian bishop who knew Julian when they were both students in Athens. “As soon as I saw these signs, I exclaimed, ‘What an evil the Roman world is breeding!’”
     And yet Julian is hardly kinder to himself in his own writings. Indeed, he delights in the disdainful and dismissive nicknames that he attracted: “’Nanny-goat,’ ‘a talkative mole,’ ‘an ape dressed in purple.’ ‘a Greekish pedant,’ and ‘a lazy, timid, shady character, tricking out his actions with fine words.’” On a note of characteristic irony, he admits in Mispogon that he finds himself unable to exhaust his shortcomings: “What a small fraction of my offenses have I described!”

p.246 Still, Julian was no mere drudge, and a certain charm and whimsy can be also seen in his reign as a philosopher king. When, for example, a Roman citizen was accused of treason because he dared to acquire a purple robe, a garment that only a monarch could lawfully own and wear, Julian satisfied himself that it was a matter of vanity rather than ambition. So he sent the informer back to the accused man with a gift--“a pair of purple slippers to complete the magnificence of his Imperial habit.”
     On another occasion, Julian presumed to engage in the formal ceremony of manumission, the freeing of a slave, while attending the games of the circus. When it was pointed out to him that Roman law reserved the ceremony to the consul who was also in attendance at the games, Julian solemnly put himself on trial and judged himself to be guilty of “trespassing on the jurisdiction of another magistrate.” He imposed on himself a fine of ten pounds of gold, thus making the point that no one, not even the emperor, was above the law.

p.247 The edict of toleration that Julian issued in 360 is lost to us, but the document can be understood as a mirror image of the Edict of Milan issued by Constantine almost a half century earlier. Constantine had extended the pagan principle of religious toleration to the persecuted Christians. Under his sons and successors, that principle was abandoned, and it was the Christians who came to persecute the pagans as well as each other. Now Julian restored the status quo as it had existed under Constantine and throughout most of pagan antiquity.
     Julian issued a series of decrees that were intended to injure the Christian cause, but only through the mildest of measures. The cross and the chi-rho were removed from the imperial standard. Property that had been seized from pagan temples by the Christian emperor was to be returned to its owners. Bequests to the church were no longer permitted, the tax exemptions enjoyed by churches and clergy were ended and the stipends that had been paid to Christian clergy out of the public treasury were cut off. All public rituals of worship were to be tolerated, pagan as well as Christian. Thus, Julian’s imperial proclamations can be understood as evenhanded and open-minded: he may have favored paganism, but he acted only to put all faiths on an equal footing.
     Still, Julian was clever enough to recognize how to cause his Christian adversaries the greatest possible aggravation--he issued an order for the recall of all Christian bishops and other clergy who had been exiled from their places of residence on charges of heresy or schism, including Arians, Donatists and even the famous Bishop Athanasius. Indeed, the Christians regarded religious liberty as a form of persecution: “He began with re-establishing Paganism by law and granting a full liberty to the Christians,” explains the eighteenth century historian William Warburton, and Anglican bishop. “He put on this mask of moderation and equity for no other purpose than to inflame the dissentions of the Church.”