Chapter 2: Pre-Christian History

Christianity Through the Ages
by Kenneth Scott Latourette

Chapter 2: Pre-Christian History

Christianity in the History of Religion

Compared with the thousands of years in which human life has been on this planet, Christianity is a recent development. When contrasted with the much longer time that life has been present, the course of Christianity thus far is but a brief moment. Here are profound questions into which, if he is wise, the historian, as historian, does not enter. He simply notes them. If he is a Christian the historian must believe that God has always been active and has been pursuing His purpose of creating sons and not robots. In doing so, God must have been following the procedure which was eventually manifested in the incarnation. Paul declared that "when the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons." He viewed the people of Israel and God’s covenant with them as a preparation for the incarnation, the cross, and the resurrection. But, when seen against the background of the entire record of mankind, the appearance of Israel was only slightly earlier than that of Christianity. Paul seems to have taken account of that fact where he says that what could be known about God was plain to men, because God had shown it to them. "For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are seen, namely, His eternal power and Godhead." Presumably God had always been seeking men, but without violating the degree of freedom of will which He had deliberately given them. As Paul is quoted as saying in his address to the students and scholars at Athens, God made of one blood all nations of men, that they should seek Him in the hope that they might feel after Him and find Him.

Certainly, so far as archeology has been able to trace the beginnings of culture, from the first, men have struggled to understand themselves and the world in which they live and have been aware, even if dimly, of a power or powers outside themselves which they have either revered or feared and have endeavored to find ways of propitiating and of bringing to their assistance.

In the history of religion which has engaged the interest of scholars, especially in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, thousands have sought to trace the inception and the development of religion and to describe the myriad forms which religion has taken, both earlier and in the contemporary scene. We need not here go extensively into that history. We must, however, note that what are usually called the high religions made their appearance within about twenty-five hundred years -- most of them within fifteen hundred years. The twenty-five centuries are roughly between 1800 B.C. and A.D. 700. These centuries saw the beginnings of Hinduism, Judaism, Greek philosophy, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, and Islam. The fifteen hundred years from 850 B.C. to A.D. 650 spanned the birth of the last five and striking developments in the first three.

Basic Questions

Five questions emerge as this long history is faced. (1) What is the reason for this presence of religion as a continuing accompaniment of human history? (2) Is advance seen in the history of religion? (3) Which if any-of the high religions most nearly approaches the truth with which religion is concerned? (4) Is religion to continue, or is it a passing phase in mankind’s long pilgrimage? (5) If religion is to continue, what form or forms will it take? The historian as historian should not venture on definitive answers to any of these questions. His craft enables him to contribute data to some of them. Even he who approaches them as a Christian must recognize that full agreement is not found among those who share his faith. Indeed, on some issues profound disagreement has existed and still exists.

Possible Answers

As to the first question, many see in the presence of religion as a continuing feature of human experience the efforts of men to give meaning to the unknown of which they are more or less aware as impinging on them. Through religion, so this answer would have it, men have been seeking to promote their own welfare and the welfare of their group by propitiating such elements in the Unknown as seem to them hostile and by enlisting in their behalf potentially friendly elements. Others see in the varied forms of religion man’s search for the answers to the Unknown or partially Known which they believe or at least hope exists and in which is the solution of the riddle of their existence and of the world about them. They perceive in these answers gropings which at best result in only partial apprehension of the truth and suggest that progress towards the truth, if truth there be, is in sharing the insights emerging from these quests. Their attitude is akin to that of the scientists who probe through their respective disciplines into aspects of man’s environment, but with a difference: the scientists are confident that, if they are persistent and employ the right methods, they can enlarge man’s knowledge of what they believe is an orderly universe and open the dangerous possibility to the utilization of the universe by men. The possibility is dangerous because, as in nuclear power, men may employ their knowledge in such fashion that it will harm them and even destroy them. But the possibility is there, so they are assured, that through knowledge man’s welfare can be advanced.

Christians may give and indeed have given quite different answers to the question. On the one hand, some have said that aside from the development which issued in the incarnation all the groping is an expression of man’s sin. For example, Paul declared that although men knew God through what, it could be clearly seen, He had created, they "glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations . . . professing themselves to be wise, they became as fools, and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things." On the other hand, and in seeming contradiction to this position, Paul is quoted as having said that the search for God is of His appointment, and as declaring that God had made of one blood all nations of men and had allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek Him in the hope of finding Him. Again, Paul is reported to have said that God is "not far from every one of us." Related to both views is the conviction that God has always been seeking to make Himself known to men but has respected man’s freedom. Man has responded by seeking God but, because of his sin, has reached distorted or completely false views. Christians agree that God did not cease His efforts, and among the people of Israel a few were sufficiently responsive to enable God through them to prepare the way for the incarnation and so reveal Himself fully to man and to act once and for all time for man’s redemption and salvation.

The answer to the second question, that of advance in man’s religious quest, must depend on the criteria which are judged valid for measuring advance. Unquestionably in the "higher" religions profound and at times sophisticated thought has been displayed; in it many sincere and deeply religious souls have been nourished and to it they have contributed. If dependable criteria are to be found in what Christians believe to be God’s act in the incarnation, the answer must be ambiguous. All religions, even the most "primitive," have elements which are in accord with the incarnation. But all display features, including fundamental features, which sharply contradict the incarnation and all that the incarnation entails.

In seeking an answer to the third question, many would say that all religions, especially the "high" ones, have striking likenesses. These are seen, so it is declared, in their ethical teachings. Numbers of those who take that view have advocated syncretism, a religion which would combine the insights of all and a joint search for the ultimate truth, if there be ultimate truth, and which would avail itself of all that man has thus far found in his age-long quest. This answer has appealed to many men of goodwill, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially to those in the Western world who have come out of a Christian heritage.

Any answer, if it be well informed, must recognize in each of the "high" religions basic convictions that are in fundamental contradiction to the essence of the Christian faith. Judaism, in which Christianity has its historic roots and to which it is deeply indebted, cannot accept what is at the very heart of the Christian faith, that in Jesus of Nazareth God became flesh and fulfilled the Jewish hope. The most that one of Jewish faith can do -- and some have gladly done it -- is to say that Jesus was the greatest in the long succession of Jewish prophets. None can acknowledge that Jesus was the Messiah without becoming a Christian. Islam, possessing much in apparent accord with Christianity, including a belief in one God and the ascription to God of many characteristics wholeheartedly accepted by the Christian, emphatically insists that God cannot have a son, and that the gulf between God and man cannot be bridged. Thus it denies the central conviction of Christianity, that in Christ, by His initiative, God has bridged the gulf to make Christ "the first born among many brethren." Or, as one early Christian, Athanasius, declared, "God became man that man might become God." Moreover, central in Islam is the conviction, embodied in its daily reiterated proclamation, that Mohammed is the prophet of God. Then, too, Mohammed taught that Christ was not crucified, thus denying another essential tenet of Christianity.

Zoroastrianism, while recognizing the conflict between good and evil discerned also by Christians, cannot admit, without being untrue to itself, that in Christ, God, Who is supreme, revealed His love, and that in the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection He triumphed over evil.

Hinduism’s basic tenet is that many roads exist by which men have pursued and still pursue their quest for the truth and that none has universal validity. In contrast, as the root and source of Christianity is the conviction that Christ is "the way, the truth, and the life" -- that in Christ God has revealed Himself and acted for man’s salvation in such fashion that no other revelation or act is needed.

Basic in the Buddha’s teaching and fundamental in Buddhism is the conviction that life is not worth living and is so inescapably linked with suffering that salvation consists in a self-discipline which ends in nirvana, the dissolution of the entity called I, and so in releasing the soul from the endless succession of births and rebirths which to the Buddha was axiomatic. Later forms of Buddhism modified this conviction, spoke of a heaven of happiness and postponed indefinitely the entrance to nirvana, but they could not negate nirvana without being false to the teaching of the founder. In contrast, Christianity, while acknowledging the presence of suffering, declares that life can be infinitely worth living and opens the way to eternal life in fellowship with God Who so loved the world that He gave Himself in Christ.

Confucianism stresses ethics, human relations, and the competence of reason, but its dominant attitude has made for agnosticism. Here is striking contrast to Christianity’s belief in God’s action in creation, in history, and in revelation and the incarnation.

Attempts at combining these various approaches have been many but have never had enduring vitality. Essays at syncretism which down-graded the uniqueness of the central core of Christianity --the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection -- and the work of the Holy Spirit, while numerous and recurring, either have been passing phenomena or have failed to enlist large numbers. Such were the Ebionism and the Gnosticism of which we are to say more in another chapter and, latterly, Unitarian humanism and the Brahmo Samaj.

The question of the persistence of religion entails prophecy. On this, if he is wise, the historian does not venture. He can simply point to trends. As we shall see in due course, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have witnessed a growth of atheistic Communism and of a secularism which is less overtly hostile but is eroding the foundations of all religions. Yet they have also seen revivals in some of the non-Christian religions and a spread of Christianity in geographic extent and in depth of rootage unparalleled in its history or in the history of any other religion.

Similarly, so far as the historian can detect from the mounting trends in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, here lies the answer to the question of what form or forms, if it persists, religion will take. Zoroastrianism has long been dwindling, is confined to small remnants, and is making no gains. Judaism is making few converts, is ethnic as has always been the case, and is suffering from mounting secularism. Except in some portions of Africa south of the Sahara, for at least five centuries Islam has made no significant geographic gains. In the past two centuries Islam has given birth to few new movements. It owes its persistence partly to its association with nationalism, mainly, as at its outset, Arab ethnicism, but, as well, to other nationalisms and to cultural lag. Hinduism, while vigorous, has lost ground in lands in South-east Asia and Indonesia where it was once influential and is confined almost entirely to India. Buddhism has been waning for over a thousand years; such revivals as it is displaying are associated chiefly with Singhalese and Burman nationalism, and nationalism has been stimulated mainly by resistance to the Occident. The acids of modernity, represented strikingly in Communism, have so weakened Confucianism that only attenuated remnants survive. So far as can be discerned from the history of the past four centuries, the future of religion appears to depend primarily on Christianity. Here many declare the outcome to be ambiguous. On the one hand is the fading of that faith among millions whose ancestors professed it. On the other hand are striking evidences of vitality in the emergence of new movements and, as we have suggested, in geographic spread and in depth of rootage among more peoples than ever before.

The Pre-Christian Religion of Israel

Christianity emerged from the religion of Israel. Or rather, it has as its background a persistent strain in that religion. To that strain Christians have looked back, and rightly, as the preparation in history for their faith.

As we have suggested, only a minority among the people of Israel were loyal to the covenant which, they were taught God had made with Abraham and their ancestors. That minority treasured the writings in which were recorded the teachings of the law-givers, the visions of the prophets, regarded as the authentic spokesmen of God (and again, a minority of those who claimed the role of prophet), and the poetry and hymns that had arisen from their faith.

These writings, Christians have believed and continue to believe, foretold Christ and His work. The Psalms, the anthology of the hymns of Israel, are still used by Christians. Yet one of the early Christians declared that the prophets were inquiring and searching diligently into what the Spirit of Christ was seeking to make known through them: presumably they did not see it clearly nor understand it fully. One of the greatest of the prophets confessed that God was saying: "My thoughts are not your thoughts; neither are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts."

The prophets and the writers of the Psalms were clear that God was continuing to work in the universe and in all history. They declared that He had created the universe. They said that the heavens proclaimed His glory and that the earth is His. They perceived Him in the thunder storm. They saw Him making grass grow and giving the beasts and the birds their food. They praised Him for providing plentiful harvests. They saw His acts in making wars cease. They believed that He was interested in all nations, judged some, and called others to do His will. They regarded Him as reigning in all the earth. They held Him to be an enemy to injustice and to the oppression of the poor and humble by the rich and mighty. They were convinced that His compassion is over all that He has made. They held that His love is steadfast and that every individual can call on Him with the assurance that He will hear. They believed that He knows each man better than a man knows himself. They were conscious that their sin was against Him but that He would forgive if they repented and that He would heal their iniquities. They struggled with the problem of evil and suffering. Why is it that the righteous are afflicted? Why do men and women go astray? They wrestled in agony over the spectacle of a mighty, aggressive nation over-running the weak and the innocent. Yet they continued to trust in God when they could not understand. The prophets were well aware that only a minority would heed them and that the majority would hear but would not understand. But they were convinced that in His own way and His own time God would triumph.

The Global Scene on the Eve of The Coming of Christ

As we have said, Christ was born in the Roman Empire. Much in that empire facilitated the spread of religion and favored the triumph of one faith. Roman rule brought political unity to the lands bordering on the Mediterranean Sea. At the outset Rome was a city-state. The empire which it governed was made up chiefly of city-states and embraced some of the oldest of civilized peoples. It included the Nile Valley, Palestine, the western edge of the Tigris -- Euphrates Valley, what was later called Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy, all of them with civilizations hundreds of years old. Its rule made possible commerce throughout its domains. With commerce went an interchange of ideas and the possibility of a cultural unity. Greek was a kind of lingua franca, especially in the cities and among the educated. In the western part of the Empire Latin was coming into wide use.

Religiously the Empire was pluralistic and marked by a search for a faith which would be satisfying intellectually and ethically and would give assurance of immortality. Official cults continued from the days before the formation of the Empire. They were maintained partly because of their utility in preserving traditional ways of life and partly for the purpose of enlisting the support of the gods for the state and for the inherited civilization. To them was added the cult of the Emperor, chiefly as a means of promoting loyalty to the Empire. Philosophies of Greek origin attracted the intelligentsia and many, not among the educated, who sought answers to the riddle of life. Prominent among the philosophies were Platonism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism, and there were in addition the Peripatetics (carrying on the Aristotelean tradition), the Pythagoreans, and the Cynics. Neoplatonism would later seek to combine several of these systems. Common to many of them and to Greek thought was a dualism which regarded matter, including flesh, as evil and sought to emancipate the human soul from it and so to achieve immortality. Mystery religions were widespread and popular. They were largely of Eastern origin -- Egyptian, Syrian, Anatolian, and Persian. Since their rites were secret we know them very imperfectly. They borrowed extensively from one another, for the general temper of the age was syncretistic; in the search for truth the assumption was that no one religion or philosophy had all the truth but hopefully each had some of it. Every mystery religion centered in a savior-god who was supposed to have been slain by his enemies and to have risen from the dead. The adherents of each were believed to share symbolically in the death and resurrection of the god and thus to obtain immortality. Some of the mysteries were built around Dionysus, others about Orpheus, and still others about Attis and the Great Mother who had loved him, mourned his death, and effected his resurrection. Some had Adonis, some Osiris, and some Mithra as their center adherents but also created fellowships among those initiated into them. Akin to the mysteries was Hermeticism, which sought emancipation of the spirit from matter. Hermeticism was potent in Gnosticism, a religious strain which took many forms and which was greatly to influence Christianity and threaten it by absorbing it into a syncretism congenial to the age. Judaism was widespread and attracted many by its monotheism and its ethical idealism.

From our mention of the Roman Empire we must immediately go on to note that the Roman domains included only a fraction of civilized mankind and an even smaller proportion of the human race outside the "higher" cultures.

Directly to the east was the Persian Empire. Under the Arsacids, a Parthian dynasty, it embraced most of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley with its early seats of civilized mankind as well as what we now call Iran. In chronic wars it kept Rome out of Mesopotamia. Later, as we are to see, the Sassanian ruling line engaged in wars with Rome which brought both régimes to the edge of exhaustion and so prepared the way for the Arab invasion and the spread of Islam. Zoroastrianism was the official religion under both the Arsacids and the Sassanians and offered more resistance to a new religion than did the state cults of the Roman Empire.

East and south of Persia was India. Although never fully united under one political structure, India was the seat of ancient civilizations and culturally did not rank behind either the Mediterranean world or Persia. For many centuries Hinduism had been strong. Buddhism, older by about five centuries than Christianity, was flourishing and had not yet reached its apex. Jainism, another offshoot of Hinduism but with far fewer adherents, was also part of the Indian religious scene.

Still farther east was China. About the time that Rome was rising to prominence China was being brought under one ruling family, known in history as the Ch’in Dynasty. The Ch’in Dynasty was short-lived, but it was followed by the Han Dynasty, which with a brief interruption was in power from 206 B.C. to A.D. 214. Although exact statistics cannot be obtained, whether for the Roman Empire or for China, nor are acceptable criteria possible for measuring the relative worth of cultures, under the Han China occupied as many square miles of land territory as did Rome, its population was probably about the same as that of Rome, and its civilization compared favorably in many ways with that of the Mediterranean world. Presumably it was as wealthy as the latter. Under the Han Confucianism had the support of the state. Other religions were present, notably two of indigenous origin, Taoism and Mohism. By the end of the Han, Buddhism had been introduced, but it did not win an extensive following until later.

Of the four high civilizations -- Rome, Persia, India, and China --the first afforded the most opportunity for the spread of a new religion. Its state-supported cults could command less respect from men seeking the answers to the riddle of the universe and of human existence than could those of the others. The religious ferment seen in the Mediterranean world when Christ was born was probably no greater than that in the other three areas of high civilization, but the stories of the gods worshipped in the temples maintained by the government had to be allegorized if the thoughtful and morally sensitive were to believe them. Nor were they undergirded as effectively by philosophy as were the popular cults in the other three realms. As we shall see, Christianity did not win the professed allegiance of the Roman Empire without severe persecution, but conditions more nearly facilitated its spread than had it come to its birth in Persia, India, or China.

Although when Christianity appeared the total population of the planet was only a fraction of that of the twentieth century, most of the earth’s surface was quite outside the Mediterranean world, Persia, India, and China. Here, too, men had been groping for the knowledge of the unseen forces which they believed surrounded them and had sought ways of enlisting their support. As the event proved, their cults were less resistant to "high" religions, including Christianity, than were these religions to Christianity. But for several centuries Christianity had little contact with them.

This was the setting in which Christianity was born. It came at a time and in a region which was best prepared to receive it. But, seemingly weak as it was at the outset, it was threatened by the environment which was part of that region’s heritage. Again and again it was apparently about to be denatured and deprived of its very essence.

Here are questions to which the historian, even when he thinks of himself as a Christian, is aware that he does not have the answers. He may agree with Paul that "when the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son." He may see, as we have suggested, that by the long preparation through Israel and the religious hunger in the Roman Empire conditions were more favorable for the reception of the Gospel than they had ever been or than they were in any other segment of mankind. But he must ask: Why did God wait so long? Could He not, even when respecting man’s freedom of will, have earlier accomplished the incarnation? What was the fate of the millions who had died before the coming of Christ? If God’s love is from everlasting to everlasting, why did He permit these millions to live and die with only such glimpses of Him as could be obtained through the orderly processes of nature? Why did He witness the groping of men for the light -- the grace and truth brought in the incarnation -- without more clearly revealing Himself? We must recognize the sincerity of the founders of the "higher" religions and of many among the "lower" or "primitive" religions. We may believe that God was always seeking to reveal Himself to men, but because He had created man in His own likeness and so had given him a degree of freedom, limited but still authentic, He could not do so until He found in the succession of the prophets and seers of Israel men sufficiently responsive to Him to prepare the way for His act in the incarnation. But could He allow the millions who had died before the coming of Christ or who lived after that coming to pass through the gate of death into darkness without the opportunity to learn of His love? Here are questions with which Christians as well as critics have continued to wrestle. To us this side the gate of death and with no clear knowledge of what transpires in that "borne from which no traveler returns" the only honest reply can be that we do not know. The historian as historian has no answer. As a Christian he must believe that God’s love will not be defeated. But how and in what fashion God’s love will triumph he cannot know. He can simply trust, with the early Christians, that it is the purpose of God to sum up all things in Christ, both in heaven and on earth. In many radiant lives known to him who even now are bearing what Paul called the fruits of the Spirit, in thousands of whom he has read who across the centuries have displayed those fruits, and in the many millions who, passing, have left behind them no written records but presumably have also been characterized by these fruits, the historian sees the beginnings of the fulfillment of that purpose. Here is what the Christian regards as a guarantee or pledge of the realization of the final triumph of God through Christ, not only in history, but also in the entire cosmos.