The Axial Age and Israel

As I reported in this post, religious scholars tend to fall into two groups: some see religions as evolving over time, coming to more mature positions of faith, while others see religions as beginning with a common truth but straying from that truth in various directions. After choosing between those two options, scholars tend to interpret religious writings and practices according to those assumptions. They even assign dates to important events and writings based on those assumptions. The traditional dates given to writings and events in the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) are rejected by advocates of evolutionary religion; they are far too early to fit the pattern that supports the evolution of religion. Redating allows evolutionary scholars to fit traditional and prophetic writings within their own historic pattern, thus perpetuating a circular argument in which the theory determines the dates and the dates support the theory.

According to the figures given in the Hebrew Bible, the Exodus from Egypt occurred about 1446 BCE. The Israelite conquest of Canaan began forty years later, about 1406 BCE. This allows about three hundred years for Bronze Age Israel under Joshua and the Judges, culminating in Samuel and his anointing of the kings, Saul and David. David’s son Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, dedicating it in 957 BCE. From there we can trace the kings of Israel and of Judah, leading to the fall of Samaria (the capital of Israel) in 722 BCE and the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 587 BCE.

If the Exodus happened in 1446 BCE, then the monotheism of Pharaoh Ikhnaton came in the aftermath of the Exodus and was a response to the preaching of Moses and to the battles God fought against Egypt and its gods. Evolutionary scholars prefer to say that Ikhnaton came first and that Israel imitated his monotheism. If Zarathustra lived in Persia during the Axial Age, then he might have learned about monotheism from exiles displaced from Israel. Evolutionary scholars prefer to say that Zarathustra’s ideas contributed to the growth of monotheism among the Israelites and Jews. Many of the prophetic writings—even many of the writings attributed to Moses—are redated by evolutionary scholars to be created in the Axial Age. According to the traditional dates, only Ezra and Nehemiah (along with the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi) belong to the Axial Age. Moses and Elijah and Amos and Hosea and Isaiah preached and wrote earlier; even Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Daniel land just before the emergence of the Axial Age in China, India, Persia, and Greece.

Individual responsibility and personal accountability are important marks of Axial Age thinking. Earlier religious movements tend to be corporate instead of individual; they see gods working with families and clans and tribes and nations and with all of creation rather than stressing individual relationships with the gods. The Hebrew Bible presents a blend of corporate religion and individual spirituality. Throughout Moses and the prophets, God sometimes deals with his people as a whole but sometimes works with people as individuals. Scholars dissect writings attributed to Moses and the prophets, trying to place some writings before the Axial Age and others within or after the Axial Age. This dissection often overlooks the structure of the texts, ignoring the unity and organization of the writings to assign their ideas to different times and communities and to insist that the final form of these writings was achieved relatively recently by anonymous editors.

The real impact of the Axial Age in Israel can be found only after the time of Ezra. The priest Ezra helped to gather the Jews around God’s Word while Jerusalem and the Temple were being rebuilt. He read the writings of Moses to the Jews and led them in observing God’s commands. Ezra may be responsible for some of the editorial work that gathered and united the book of Psalms. He may have also gathered the writings of the Prophets and organized them into the books that are read and studied today. Ezra demanded faithfulness to God, faithfulness expressed in both communal and individual ways. Reading the ancient books of Moses, Ezra assured the Jews that these commandments and promises were as important to God’s people at his time and place as they were to the Israelites following Moses centuries earlier.

After Ezra died, Axial Age influences began to seep into the Jewish community. They were not isolated: they were first part of the Persian Empire, then part of Alexander’s Empire, then part of the Hellenistic world, encamped on the moving border between the Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt and the Seleucid Empire in Syria. Hellenistic thought was Axial Age thought, strongly flavored by Greek philosophers and scientists. Jewish scholars studied the writings of Moses and the Prophets, and they began to apply them to individual life, separating them from the shared life of the community of God’s people. They took requirements out of the Temple—such as priests who washed their hands before offering sacrifices—and applied them to life in the Jewish home. They took the requirements of the Sabbath Day and established detailed regulations describing what is allowed and what is forbidden on that day. What they were doing, they described as “building a fence around the Law.” They remembered how their ancestors had violated the covenant God made with his people on Mount Sinai. Seeing themselves as living under the same covenant, they tried to ensure that they would not displease God as their ancestors had done. Instead, they would earn his favor by careful observation of all his rules.

Jesus of Nazareth was born in the midst of this Axial Age restatement of the holy covenant between God and his people. Jesus disagreed with the interpretations offered by the Hellenistic Bible experts among the Jews, people called “Pharisees” in the New Testament. Jesus demonstrated that Moses and the Prophets involved more than rules and regulations for God’s people: they offered the promise of a Savior, a personal visit from God, who would redeem his people, crushing the enemies of sin and evil and death. Jesus also claimed to be that promised Redeemer, a personal visit from God, come to claim his people and to bring them out of the wilderness into a Promised Land.

Many Jews trusted Jesus and followed him. Gentiles also came to faith in him. Experts in the Law opposed him. They resented his rejection of their interpretations of the covenant. They especially resented his promise to forgive sins, to be the Redeemer who rescues God’s people. They tried to destroy Jesus. Instead, they worked to fulfill the promises stated in Moses and the Prophets. Followers of Jesus, called Christians, preserved the Hebrew Bible, but they included with it writings of apostles who said that Jesus had fulfilled the promises of God and had created a new covenant to replace the one that was broken.

Christianity is not an Axial Age movement. In some ways, Christianity is a reaction against Axial Age thought. It restores the concept of a people of God, a community that is now called the Holy Christian Church. Yet Christianity also stresses individual responsibility and a personal relationship with God. Like Moses and the Prophets, Christian faith covers both sides of life, offering its members citizenship in God’s kingdom but also personal status as royalty in that kingdom. This new teaching, according to Jesus and his followers, is as old as the timeless plan of God, a plan of salvation that goes back to the very beginning of creation. J.

Advent thoughts: December 15

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2—read Isaiah 40:1-11).

As a prophet of the Lord, Isaiah frequently had to deliver bad news to Israel and to Judah. In Deuteronomy, Moses’ farewell message, God had spoken about the covenant he made with Israel. If they were faithful to him and kept his commandments, he would bless them with peace and prosperity. If they turned away from him and worshiped other gods and broke his commandments, he would bring judgment on them and punishment. Throughout the time of the judges and the kings of Israel, the terms of this covenant remained in effect. The people fluctuated between unfaithfulness, which brought punishment, and repentance and faith, which brought relief. Eventually, the sins of the nation piled up so high that, under the terms of the covenant, God had to bring the Assyrians and Babylonians to the Promised Land to punish his people for their sins.

When Isaiah preached about the covenant, he could only offer bad news to the Lord’s people. But something bigger than the covenant also existed: the love and mercy and grace of God. Along with warnings of God’s punishment, the prophet could also share God’s comfort. The people had declared war upon God by worshiping false gods, but God in his grace declared the warfare ended. The people had acquired a debt to God by their sins, but God in his mercy pardoned their debt. In his love, God sent his Son to pay that debt—not only to pay it in full by his sacrifice, but to pay more than the full cost, to pay double for their sins, so no debt would remain outstanding.

Isaiah contrasted the covenant’s demands with the Lord’s grace. Under the covenant, the Promised Land became a wilderness; but under grace, a highway was built through the wilderness to bring God’s people home. Under the covenant, the people were like grass withering in the heat of the sun; but under grace they were sustained by the Word of the Lord, which stands forever. Under the covenant, the people received bad news from the Lord’s prophets; but under grace they heard good news of rescue and redemption. The good news was so good that they were to shout it from a high mountain—to “Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere.” God would come with might, not to punish sinners but to rescue his people from sin, to redeem them and to comfort them with his mercy and love and grace.

The glory of the Lord was revealed as a baby was born in Bethlehem, wrapped in cloths, and placed in a manger. The glory of the Lord was revealed as angels shared the good news with shepherds watching their flocks by night. The glory of the Lord was revealed as wise men came bearing gifts for the King. The glory of the Lord was revealed as the Son of God was sentenced to die on a Roman cross, paying double for the sins of his people so they could be ransomed.

“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever.” This Word is his promise of peace, of forgiveness, and of new life. No power in all creation can take away this promise, for God has spoken, and his promises cannot be revoked. Even as sinners living in a sinful world, we have this comfort that God has made us saints. Thanks be to God! J.