Monday, February 20, 2017

The Origin of Religions

They Walked With God

“The man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day.”
Genesis 3:8

The isolated village was at the end of a difficult and little-travelled track. The collection of simple huts was so far back in the Himalayan foothills of southwestern Yunnan Province of China that it was seldom visited by outsiders and never before by a white European - until Allyn Cooke and his companions from the China Inland Mission, hiking back into this mountainous region to take the message of Jesus to the Lisu people who lived there, discovered it in the early 1930s. It was there in this remote village that the surprising events he related to me fifty years later occurred.

    As the party of missionaries approached the village the Lisu gathered to greet them and were curious both of these strange people and why they had come. But very quickly their curiosity turned to excitement. They noticed Mr. Cooke’s big ears, and they remembered a story that had lain dormant in their tribal memories for centuries. The story predicted that one day a man would come to tell them about God. He would have a book of God’s words. And he would have big ears.

    As it happened, Mr. Cooke not only had big ears – I can attest to that myself, for Mr. Cooke was a friend – but he had a book of God’s words, and he had come, he told them, to tell them about God. Over a period of weeks, as Mr. Cooke told the story about Jesus, nearly the entire village accepted the good news of this message and became followers of Jesus. Why would they not? Their ancestors had told them to expect this.

    In fact, through the work of James O. Fraser and Isobel Kuhn, whose work among the Lisu is well documented, and through the work of my friend Mr. Cooke working with them as translator more than half of the Lisu people in Yunnan Providence numbering in the hundreds of thousands turned from their primitive animistic religion to follow Christ. Today the Lisu church is strong in China and the neighboring countries of Burma, Laos and Thailand. But that is not the point of the story. The point is that these Lisu people had been somehow prepared by their traditional story to receive the message of the one true God. How did that happen?

    The how it happened is lost in the past. The memories of the Lisu did not go back that far. But the experience of finding primitive people like the Lisu with such a story in their ancestral memories turns out not to be unique. Don Richardson, a missionary to Western New Guinea, found in his research of missions experiences across the world that there were as many as a hundred similar stories of primitive people having a story that uniquely prepared them to hear the message of the one true Creator God. He collected those stories in his book Eternity in Their Hearts. My point here, related to the topic of the development of religion from prehistoric times, is that there is something going on here that many anthropologists miss. There is a core knowledge of God that preceded the development of religions and gods. And that is ignored in the history of religion as told in the typical text books of anthropology.

    But how did religions, as distinct from this core knowledge, develop? That is the question. For that we look to archaeology for the beginning of religion.

God Consciousness
    One of the first indicators of religious beliefs is found in graves.
Graves provide direct confirmation of a culture's belief in an afterlife. Grave goods are included with corpses -- mummified, confined in coffins or laid simply into the ground -- to show the rank or profession of the deceased and to provide utilitarian value in the underworld...
writes anthropologist Benna Crawford. Earliest Evidence

    And when do these kinds of artifacts begin to show up?

    A news story of the excavation of a cave in Vietnam reported in says of the Con Moong Cave:
The attraction of the Con Moong cave is that it is considered to be the only place in Southeast Asia with the longest and most continuous existence of human and the clear image on physical cultural and spiritual culture [emphasis mine] of ancient people. The cave records that developing culture from about 18,000 to 7,000 B.C.

    The author writes:
The cave is the 'big house' of the ancient Vietnamese. But this is not just a place of residence, but also the burial site. Digging to a depth of 3.6 m, archaeologists discovered the remains of four individuals of the Old Stone Age. Among them, there is a relatively intact tomb. The dead were buried in the lying position, with working tools made of stone.
    The tools in the graves are evidence that these primitive people back to 20,000 years ago had a belief in the afterlife. But what is missing from the grave, or at least not mentioned, are religious artifacts such as images (idols) or ritual related jewelry. Their belief had not developed an organized religion, at least not one that produced artifacts.

    But more than the belief in the afterlife, the graves witness to a consciousness of mortality and, though not yet evident in artifacts, a consciousness of God.  A more organized system in which gods were invoked and were assumed to have a role in life would follow later.

    One anthropologist Barbara Tedlock writes about the development of more organized religion in her article on Wikipedia and in her book linked to the article. After a lot of conjecture and “are-thought-to-haves” this Wikipedia article points to the earliest religious artifacts: “The earliest known undisputed burial of a shaman [spiritual tribal leader]  dates back to the early Upper Paleolithic era (c. 30,000 BC) in the area of the present-day Czech Republic.” Paleolithic religion  There is a caution. Tedlock’s focus on shamanism may have led to Wikipedia including a note that the neutrality of this article is disputed.  So there is a question mark about whether evidence of shamanism and a protoreligion was found. But what follows is clearly  confirmed by archaeology, so clearly that it cannot be misinterpreted, Gobekli Tepe. 

Religious Rituals
    Gobekli Tepe is the oldest temple ever found according to this National Geographic article: “The National Geographic   (If this link does not work see National Geographic .)  Gobleki Tepe is a large stone structure decorated in bas-relief carvings of animals and presumed by the discoverer of the site, archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, to be a religious pilgrimage site.

    The author of the National Geographic article writes, “What it suggests, at least to the archaeologists working there, is that the human sense of the sacred—and the human love of a good spectacle—may have given rise to civilization itself.”

    What we know for sure is that Gobekli Tepe was built before metal working, before pottery, before agriculture, before organized villages, and before any other structure larger than a hut. It sits in the hills of southern Turkey and dates to about 9,000 B.C.  And we know Gobekli Tepe was not alone. Since its discovery other smaller sites in southern Turkey have been found. Evidently religion was big.

    Another thing is certain, a more sophisticated technology than we could have imagined available so long ago was used in Gobekli Tepe’s construction. It reminds me of the technologies attributed to Cain's line in Genesis 4.

   One more thing seems reasonable to infer: Religion rather than agriculture was the driving force in the development of civilization in the Middle East. It is possible also to infer that this early religion and its rituals were animistic as there were no obvious images of human-like gods.  Zeus and Thor would come later in history.

    Interestingly, in the biblical story of Cain, Abel, and Seth there is the hint that at some point the stream of God consciousness that developed into the religion of Gobekli Tepe and later into the religions of the Sumerians and Babylonians divided early in the history of mankind. Cain’s stream went in one direction and Seth’s in another with Seth’s family establishing what seems like the first informal monotheistic religion, the religion that is later identified with the monotheistic religion of Yahweh: "Seth also had a son, and he named him Enosh. At that time people began to call on the name of the Lord" (Genesis 4:26). 

    On the other hand, the family of Cain developed technologies like metal working and musical instruments and cities (Genesis 4:17-22), the things that we see in the Sumerian civilization in the 4th millennium B.C., but there is no mention of religion, except that earlier Cain had killed Abel over religion and he had been banished by God and that Cain had chosen to turn away from God and go his own way. 

Creation Myths
    Those emerging technologies attributed to Cain’s family along with the divergent animistic religions are evident in Gobekli Tepe. The development of polytheistic religion millennia later are evident in the creation myths created by the Sumerians.
    The Sumerian creation myth Enuma Elish Link begins in chaos then narrates the development of a pantheon of gods who were responsible for bringing the chaos to order. It is the earliest creation myth in written form, dated in the clay tablet on which it was written to about 1600 B.C. But it can be reasonably inferred to have originated much earlier. And, of course, the Sumerian creation myth was not alone. Similar creation myths, beginning in chaos and ending in order and creating other pantheons of gods were painted on the walls of temples in Egypt. And other peoples separated at great distance from the Middle East also had creation myths.

    Among the most interesting are the Maori myths from New Zealand. In one myth the development of the cosmos is described as “a series of periods of darkness () or voids (kore), each numbered in sequence or qualified by some descriptive term. In some cases the periods of darkness are succeeded by periods of light (ao).” The similarity to the Genesis story should be obvious, darkness and light are themes there as well, and the creation act in Genesis is divided into six days divided by “it was evening and it was morning.”  In addition, the Maori myth describes the earth at the very beginning as pō and kore, darkness and void, as in Genesis 1:2 where the earth is described as tohu v’bohu, empty and void. 

    And who is the creator in the Maori myth? Dr. Brian Doherty of the University of Texas in Austin writes: “Io is known as the Supreme Being and ex nihilo (out of nothing) creator of the entire universe.” Univerity of Texas link 

    April Holloway writes on Ancient Origins,
It is obvious that the Maori myths also have many similarities to the Babylonian creation epic, but they also share similarities with the Ancient Greek creation stories. How it is possible for an isolated civilization to have commonalities with such myths is yet to be found, increasing speculations that the myths contain a common truth of external intervention. Link

    The site Ancient Origins describes itself as “pop archaeology,” but the observation that there are similarities is obvious. The connection with the Genesis narrative is also obvious.  The picture emerging from archaeology and anthropology is that there was a common origin of religion that is preserved in the myths and stories. And at the core of those is the idea of a Creator God.

    The creations myths of most of the native peoples of America are equally interesting. Most of the various tribal myths acknowledge a Creator God above all the other deities. Here is the Abenaki myth:
The Great Spirit, in a time not known to us looked about and saw nothing. No colors, no beauty. Time was silent in darkness. There was no sound. Nothing could be seen or felt. The Great Spirit decided to fill this space with light and life.  
All of the native peoples of American added to the belief in a Creator God myths that associated various animals with the phenomena of the natural world. In the Pacific Northwest where I live, Coyote was the animal who with typical coyote-like cunning and humor  was responsible for many of the phenomena and features of the area.

    The picture emerging from archaeology and anthropology research across the globe is that there common knowledge of the origin of the world. That origin was preserved in the myths and stories. At the core of those myths is the idea of a Creator God.

    It is as though there was a racial memory of something in the distant past shared by all peoples. And that is where the research of Richardson in Eternity in Their Hearts  intersects with this quest for the origin and development of religion. Richardson found that many people groups, both primitive and more advanced, had a traditional knowledge of God.

    One of those people groups was the Santal from a region north of Calcutta, India. When the  Santal first heard missionary Lars Skrefsrud  tell them in the late 1800s of God and the gospel of Jesus,
[They] were electrified almost at once by the gospel message. At length he [Skrefsrud] heard Santal sages, including one named Kolean, exclaim, ‘What this stranger is saying must mean that Thakur Jiu has not forgotten us after all this time!’ Skrefsrud caught his breath in astonishment. Thakur was a Santal word meaning ‘genuine.’ Jiu meant ‘god.’  (Richardson, Don. Eternity in Their Hearts (Kindle Location 555). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)
     They knew about this God because their ancestors back into prehistory had preserved the legend of their origins.

    That legend was finally disclosed in detail by a Santal elder. It amazingly followed the Genesis foundational stories clear through the narrative of the flood in Genesis 6. It even explained why the Santal had adopted the worship of spirits of the mountains, the Himalayas over which the Santal had migrated millennia before on their journey from the Middle East to India.

    From Africa, the Gedeo people of Ethiopia people tell the story of a man who followed the traditional belief in Magano, the omnipotent Creator of all, and was given powerful and detailed visions of two messengers, white men, who would come with a message from Magano. He told the tribal elders his vision. Eight years later two missionaries from Canada drove their rusty old International truck into the village and fulfilled the vision Warrasa Wange had experienced. (Richardson, Don. Eternity in Their Hearts (Kindle Locations 750-751). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

The Creation of a Pantheon
    The point of telling these stories is that primitive people in many, many locations across world share something in common. They had a core belief in a Creator God and sometimes a detailed story that coincided with the Genesis stories and an anticipation that this God would reveal himself to them.  In the absence of no more than a belief in a Creator God, all these peoples layered upon that core belief a pantheon of gods or spirits that often were related to their tribal history or natural phenomena. Around those pantheons of gods these tribal people devised myths. Those myths varied considerably, from the gods of the Greek pantheon to the animistic gods of native American people. But the core belief was not lost, just submerged.

    The exception to that trend in the development of religions was one family, Abraham’s. Abraham was born into a culture in Ur of Mesopotamia where the moon God was revered and worshiped from the top of their ziggurat. It would be expected that Abraham, too, along with his family would have been worshipers, but it does not appear that Abraham was. He evidently revered another God, the God of whom we also read in the book of Job, a God whom Job called Eloah Maal, God above or God exceedingly. 

    (The book of Job, at least the core of the narrative poem, is the oldest document in the Hebrew Bible. Its origin was Uz west of the region of Ur, and the date, based on the geographical and cultural descriptions, was about 2000 B.C. That is about the time of Abraham. In fact, several of the people mentioned in the narrative poem appear to be related to Abraham. )

     Abraham’s family is traced in the book of Genesis back to Noah and from there back to Seth the third son of Adam. It was Seth’s line in which the belief in one Creator God was preserved most faithfully and in whose line the worship of that God developed from simple ritual of sacrifice to the well defined and organized religion we see in the books of Moses. Seth’s line, according to the Genesis narrative, preserved the belief in one true Creator God without being layered over by the religions and myths created by the peoples around them. The narrative of Abraham intersects the line of that development at a point when the belief in this God had not developed into an organized religion or dogma.

    The reason that Seth’s stream does not show up in archaeology is that there was no organization or written text. And the numbers of believers were few, basically families, certainly not nations or civilizations.  There were no pictures as in Egypt or idols as in Sumer and Babylon. There were no rituals such as burials with religious objects. The religion of this God whom Abraham knew as Eloah Maal or as El Elyon (God Most High) left no trace – except in the orally transmitted stories, stories that were not written down for another 400 years.

Organization and Codes
    About 1500 B.C. this God spoke to Moses and called him to bring out his Hebrew people from Egypt to Canaan. Along with Moses’ mission, God gave to this new nation through Moses the rituals, religious organization,  and dogma that are found in the books of Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

    In addition, Moses icluded the foundational stories in Genesis:  creation, the first man, and the flood. These stories had been preserved orally and preserved not only in the line of Seth but preserved also in stories and myths of many of the various primitive cultures around the world.

Two Streams
    That is the story of the development of religion, two streams. One stream became layered over by rituals, traditions, myths and dogmas and had all but lost the core truth of the one true personal God. That stream became the religions we see in human history, religions that vary from Zoroastrianism, the belief in one universal, transcendent, supreme god Link Zoroastrianism  to Hinduism, belief in many gods.  That is the stream that shows up as we study the past through archaeology and anthropology.

    The other stream proceeds from the most ancient belief in a Creator God, the same origin as the first stream, but remains as a simple faith undistorted through the many centuries until it eventually receives (develops) an organization, rituals, and dogma through Moses. That faith remained clearly monotheistic, even though it was surrounded by cultures in Ur, Canaan, and Egypt that were polytheistic.  During the 1st and 2nd millennium B.C.  it exploded into a worldwide faith. In the modern era it remains true to its origins as a belief in one true personal God, Creator of all. 

Chart of the Development of Religion

Two Streams
Seth's Stream
Cain's Stream
Consciousness of God and mortality, monotheism Consciousness of a Creator God and mortality, latent in most religions now
Religious Rituals -sacrifice Religious Rituals - sacrifice and many others, artifacts
Creation story - one only Creation Myths - many different

Creation of a Pantheon of Gods, different according to culture
Creation of Codes and Dogma, artifacts Creation of Codes and Dogma, different according to religion

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