The West Without Christianity: Neo-Platonism, Allah or Jupiter? September 28, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval , trackback
Woke up with a crazy counter-factual thought. Let’s say that Christ is born and becomes messiah to a select group of Nazarenes. He is crucified and allegedly rises from the dead: keep or strike the ‘allegedly’ as pleases you. However, then things go awry. Paul never has a migraine on the Road to Damascus and at the Council of Jeresualem, the Jewish faction of Christianity triumphs over the likes of Peter, who want to make the religion universal. Christianity does not spread beyond Judaism and then disappears down the plughole of history, when the Jewish revolt begins in 66 AD (much as happened in fact to James’ branch of what we today call ‘the Church’). The future world religion, which had seeded throughout the Mediterranean within a generation of Christ’s birth, instead, withers on the fig tree of Palestine. Now all this is a very wordy way to say that Christianity doesn’t make it. The resulting question, though, is what would have emerged instead? What religion would have become the religion of the west. Beach has come up with three answers. He would love to hear of others: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
a) Roman Paganism: Roman religion was really a mess of different gods borrowed from different pantheons. This religion would have remained in place as a kind of western Hinduism. There would have been village versions and then there would have been intellectualized versions (see b, below). But most nineteenth-century European capitals would have had a dozen or more temples in their fora. ‘Oh if you go to Helsinki you must visit All Conquering Mars built after the Winter War… Light a candle for me there please.’
b) Neo-Platonism: From the fifth century B.C various religious-philosophical movements made their way through into the everyday life of the Mediterranean: stoicism, pythagorism, platonism… By the early centuries AD the most interesting had been absorbed into Neo-Platonism that reduced the universe to a godhead and a series of local spirits/sprites. (In the renaissance Neo-Platonism was used to explain angels and fairies.) Perhaps this would have eventually been codified into a religious system with inquisitions and witch burnings and sectarian wars? ‘You said what about Plotinus?’
c) Islam: If either of the previous had emerged then we have to ask whether they would have been able to resist, intellectually, Islam as it came to life in the seventh and eighth centuries. Steel is stronger than iron and monotheism seems to trump polytheism. It is true that Europeans stopped Islam with the sword: though, in a very real sense, Islam created Europe. However, would Europeans have been so successful had they felt unable to resist the transcendent wonder of a single all-conquering God? Would the rather abstract One of late neo-Platonism have been able to kick Allah hard in the shins?
Beach dreams about (b) – if only Julian had not died in the desert… – but he suspects that the answer to this question might well be (c).
28 Sept 2013: Some fascinating responses to this: lots of overlapping opinions but as these are from authorities we put them all up. Tom Holland (twitter) wrote in the pre stage of writing that there would have been a European Hinduisim. Grumpy Historian (twitter) took off on another tack, or rather several: ‘You forgot the Persian options: Zoroastrian/Manichean sects. And Stoic ecumenicism, which was immensely powerful in Rome. I think Aristotelianism (think Maimonides: how about a Jewish option?) would have been more successful than neo-Platonism. And there’s evidence of Buddhism influencing the West (Greek ideas of reincarnation, saints’ halos): without Christianity…’ Cidmarcelo brought up Mithridatism’. The Anomalist asks whether Islam would have even come about without Christianity. Judith Weingarten writes ‘Oh, if only Julian hadn’t died in the desert. I couldn’t agree more. But the winner, in the absence of Christianity, would surely have been Manichaeanism.’ KMH writes ‘The one religion you have left out is Zoroastrianism. In addition to influencing Judaism during the Babylonian and Persian periods, it was quite popular during the first few centuries after Christ in the Roman Empire and one of Christianity’s chief rivals. It is thought that the three wise men belonged to one of the Zoroastrian star-worshipping sects. The religion was no match for Christianity in the West or later Islam in the East. Manicheism, as a last manifestation of the dual-god concept at that time, blended Zoroastrian and Christian concepts, but proved to be unpalatable under the Roman Empire. Somehow, Christianity survived all the alternatives, including the Egyptian Osiris, and the Nordic Wotan, and thrived.’ From all this I take away the complexity of the situation: I would have to add a couple more options to my three to say the least… I do find myself wondering about Judaism. A lot of recent work has gone into showing the prosletising potential and intentions of first-century Judaism. Perhaps there would have been a synagogue on every street? It is interesting too that early Christianity was extremely Jewish. There is evidence for a kosher diet, for example. Judaism perhaps would have proved palatable to the Mediterranean palate. Thanks to all responders on twitter or by email!
29 Sept 2013: Next JHM with a correction that I should have caught: ‘Just me being critical I’m afraid, but in this post there is a mention of ‘Mithridatism’. I wondered if perhaps if ‘Mithraism’ was meant, as in ‘followers of Mithras’, rather than than ‘ingesting small amounts of poison so to gain an immunity over time’ as mithridatism means?’ Sorry but it sounds like Europe could have done with a dose of both!! LTM suggests druids. The dating is off, save the survivors in Ireland but there is something wonderful about the idea of Pythagorean druids walking barefoot through Elizabethan towns. Finally, MCJ backing up the Anomalist. ‘Sorry to jump in so late, but you can forget about (c). Without Christianity there would have been no Islam. Long before Muhammad, the Arabian peninsula was the hotbed of a Christian movement called monophysitism, roundly condemned by good trinitarians as a heresy. Theologically, Islam is very clearly a monophysite development. *Something* might still have come out of Arabia in the 6th century, since Muhammad was that rare combination of an astute politician, an able generalissimo as well as a mystic. But it would not have been Islam.’ Thanks JHM, LTM and MCJ! Having thought about this for a couple of days European Judaism is growing on me, but there are clearly lots of possibilities…
1 Oct 2013: NMN writes I have to echo The Anomalist here–without Christianity (at least the Nestorian branch of it), can we speculate that Islam would have ever appeared on the world stage, given Mohammed’s interactions with Jews and Christians in Arabia prior to his dictating of the Koran? That said, regarding the question of “What if Jesus had been born into another society?”, Charles Frazee offers an interesting perspective in his book “2000 Years Ago: The World at the Time of Jesus,” in which he posits that Christianity could not have occurred as it did if it had not appeared in the Hellenistic Levant, given the linguistic, philosophical, and cultural characteristics of the region. It sounds in some ways like James Burke’s “radical change;” various factors that preexist an event (here, the advent of Christianity), make it possible for new events to occur (such as the spreading of the Gospel and birth of the early church in the greater Mediterranean in such a short time)**** Nathaniel writes in: ‘You’ve probably run into The God Fearer [no, ed]. Its premise is an alternate history in which a kind of universalized Judaism becomes the dominant religion in Europe, with Christians as a persecuted minority (i.e. the reverse of the historic situation). Sadly the result overall seems no better than that of actual history.’ Thanks Nathaniel!