Today, I learned a new word! I’m reading a book by Thomas Cahill on the impact the Jews had on civilization–much as I am pretty down on organized religion in general and still privately nursing the grudges of my youth against Christianity in specific (Hey, at least I’m admitting it!), he makes an excellent case for the profound impact of Judaism on the development of a sense of history–rather than time being percieved as a sort of unchanging spiral, as it generally had been by…well, pretty much everybody…the sense that time was going SOMEWHERE, that things could get better, that change was both possible and sometimes good was arguably largely due to Judaism. And that was interesting stuff. (I’d argue that the Mayans eventually developed a synthesis of time as repeating and time as going somewhere–a circular calender that finally did END in some presumably catastophic event–but given their historical isolation and later timeframe, it just didn’t play much into the roots of Western civilization.) Cahill is cool–he’s enthusiastic about biblical studies and can cheer on the profound impact of Judaica on history while still being very straightforward that the Bible is contradictory, inaccurate, and full of instances where God is positively monsterous. (His phrase, not mine, don’t come screamin’ at me. But c’mon, the Old Testament God was a jerk, no question.) I find that a pretty acceptable compromise, all in all–I’m willing to accept that this sort of thing was a radical leap forward from, say, the Epic of Gilgamesh, if he’s willing to admit that Noah was derived lock stock and barrel from Untapashnim the ferryman of said epic and thus that we don’t need to start putting potholes in Ararat trying to locate a gopherwood boat. So it’s all hunky dory.
However! The cool word I learned was “henotheism,” described as the faith practiced by Abraham and descendants–the belief that there are many gods, but you should only worship one in particular. In the early renditions of the Bible, both deity and people were pretty clear on there being plenty of gods about, it was just a matter of not worshipping everybody else–“You shall have no other gods before Me,” not “I’m the only God, guys, so lump it.” The language, according to Cahill, is pretty clear–this was an environment in which there were obviously a lot of gods about, you were just supposed to stick to YHVH, because–well, y’know. (Not speaking ancient Hebrew, I can’t speak to the truth of this one way or the other, mind you.) The mental shift from that henotheism (ha! Love that word!) to the straight out monotheism of later Christianity–from “I’m the top god,” to “I’m the ONLY god,” was an interesting sort of shift to make, and obviously had a big influence on the ultimate incarnation of Christianity. One can’t help but wonder what would have happened if things had stayed henotheistic instead of converting to the sort of pure monotheism of modern Christianity.
Vocabulary is good.