The peoples of the ancient Middle East developed numerous religious traditions that varied tremendously over time and from place to place. Most of them were polytheistic and involved animism, the belief that various places, objects, and natural phenomena (such as certain springs, mountains, trees, animals, rocks, the sun, the moon, planets and stars, thunder, rain, the seasons, etc.) have souls, and shaped the vicissitudes of life according to their wills and abilities or powers. Individuals who subscribed to such religious ideas felt themselves to be surrounded by spirits of all kinds, benign and malevolent, some powerful and others merely irksome. They often considered certain spirits to be the allies and protectors of themselves or their kinfolk against “evil” spirits. The desire to placate or manipulate key spirits led to the development of a wide variety of magic rituals. The more complex systems, such as those of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, developed elaborate myths that purported to explain the origins of the universe and the physical world. Thus, for example, the ancient Egyptians believed that the primordial waters of chaos gave rise to a series of gods, who eventually bore Nut, the god of the sky, and Geb, the god of the earth, whose existence finally defined the physical world in which humans live.
Over time, however, there emerged in the Middle East another set of religious concepts that, taken together, we may call the “Middle Eastern religious paradigm.” These ideas gradually supplanted the older polytheistic religious notions in the Middle East between about 500 BCE and 600 CE, and form the common basis of four major religious traditions that have spread far beyond the Middle East: Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Although these four religions all differ from each other in important ways, more striking than the differences (particularly when compared to religions from other parts of the world, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, or Daoism) is how much they have in common. The following basic religious concepts are ones they all share:
Fred M. Donner
Professor of Near Eastern History, University of Chicago
1. In what ways do the concept of monotheism and the central belief in prophesy relate to one another?
2. This essay clearly explains each of the similarities between the monotheistic faiths within the Middle Eastern religious paradigm. However, there are stark differences between polytheism and monotheism—apart from the quantity of deities one worships. In particular, with regard to the degrees of difference in the areas of prophesy, revealed scripture and final judgment. Using what you know about polytheistic faiths, and inferring from reading the main essay, describe how polytheistic faiths would stand apart from the Middle Eastern religious paradigm concepts of prophesy, revealed scripture, and final judgment.
3. Donner explains the enormous growth of Christianity and Islam through their proselytizing character, whereas Judaism, and its smaller population of faithful, is non-proselytizing. Generally speaking, what challenges would/has each faith encounter(ed) through history as related to their proselytizing or non-proselytizing character?