Religion: Painfully detailed origins

David Douglass reviews: John Pickard, 'Behind the myths: the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam', AuthorHouseUK, 2013, pp492, £17.99

This is a thoroughly researched and painfully detailed review of the origins of Judean, Christian and Islamic belief, based upon archaeological evidence, historical documentation and comparative histories. It looks at the material conditions, the class and economic forces, drawing out the theological and sociological background to the rise of the respective religions and their keystone myths.

John Pickard demonstrates with utter clarity that the bulk of the texts found in the Bible, Torah and Qur’an are historical nonsense, forgeries or simply invented accounts, as the respective religions developed and adapted to changing social conditions and class pressures. They were set down hundreds of years after the events they purport to describe as conscious attempts to steer the religious authority of their creeds in directions which suited the prevailing demands of the ruling classes and religious elites.

The analysis of the early history of the Jews and the development of their mythology knocks huge holes in the story that forms the underlying basis for current Zionist politics and social justifications. This is particularly true when tracing the origins of the Jews and how in fact, if at all, they differed from other people in the region. It looks at the biblical stories and sets them against independent accounts and histories. For example, the stories of the creation and the flood are legends common to all ancient cultures of the east. There is no evidence whatever of a mass flight of Hebrew slaves under the leadership of Moses, or of 40 years travelling by masses of Hebrews in Sinai. I found John’s exposition on the rise of the full-time priesthood particularly amusing and illuminating, as the holy book is bent on supporting the rise of this new level of hierarchy and what payment they received.

Jesus: fact or fiction?

The most dramatic argument offered in this book is that Jesus as a living individual did not in fact exist. There are no references to Jesus in any contemporary sources. Neither are there any references to a real Jesus in the earliest Christian writings, including those of Paul, the founder of what became ‘the church’. There was certainly a Christian movement and its message initially was radical and challenging, but Jesus himself was an amalgam of heroes and legends. The church, as it became an established state religion of the Roman empire, weeded out hundreds of early Christian texts, and either selected small sections of others or rewrote and invented new ones.

John identifies the cult of Joshua as the source of the Jesus story among a communistic, radical movement, which was anti-empire and anti-hierarchy, and for the poor and exploited. It was Jewish in ritual and theology. ‘Jesus’ was a generic construct based upon legends of the movement and the embodiment of early real leaders. The story of a living, real Jesus was invented hundreds of years after the development of this movement, turning him from a radical, albeit messianistic, embodiment of rebellion into a god. It was laced with real events and legends carried solely in oral tradition for over a hundred years, added to and adapted to new events and the influx of non-Jewish culture and mythology taken from Greek and Roman traditions. There was no story of a biological Jesus until Mark: “It was Mark’s composition that gathered together the earlier traditions, used recent history of Jerusalem to set the stage for Jesus’s time, crafted the plot, spelt out the motivations and so created the story of Jesus which was to become the gospel truth for Christianity” (p207).

Incidentally, “It is more than likely that the name of the town of Nazareth is also fictitious … there is no reference to it in ancient sources ...” John argues that the inventor of the name rationalised it as the birthplace of the ‘Nazarene’ (ie, Jesus), but the way of life of a ‘Nazarite’ was actually characterised by asceticism and abstinence. John quotes the Old Testament reference to Samson as Nazarite. He informs us that the root of the word is linked to the concept of separation, as a religious hermit might stand apart from the majority of people. The Old Testament also sees Moses instructed by God to insist that a Nazarite should refuse to partake of anything from the vine (p207). So the word referred to a concept of behaviour, not a place.

The vast bulk of church historical and theological writing was ditched in favour of just four scriptures - rewriting in the process a new version of Christianity, with all other older and less orthodox versions banned or destroyed. The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, and the early heretical gospels of Philip and Judas, among others, despite all efforts to suppress them, tell a different story. The gospels were amended time after time, in accordance with the theological guidelines of the church hierarchy and the class it served.

As the church was led away from its narrow Jewish roots, it had to be made easier for those of non-Jewish cultures to join it, so many local gods were adopted as saints and local religious holidays were transformed into Christian ones. Christmas is a prime example. The birth of Jesus was assigned to the date of the winter solstice in the Julian calendar, when the pagan devotees of Mithras celebrated the birthday of the Invincible Sun. The Christians were to hijack it as the birthday of the son of god.

Following a temporary and relatively small-scale persecution of the Christian faith, the Roman state moved over to its wholesale acceptance as the religion of the empire under Constantine and his successors. This was more to do with politics and pragmatism than theology. As John says, “It was the political and social environment of the church and the needs of the Roman state which created the theology.”

Foundations of Islam

John’s treatment of the mythologies of Islam are no less thoroughgoing and frank than his treatment of Judaism and Christianity, but they probably require a lot more guts to make. This is true on two levels, the first being that the liberal left has now persuaded itself that any criticism of the beliefs and practices of Islam is ‘racist’. The second, more importantly, is that critics of Islam can in some circumstances wind up dead.

Like the story of Jesus, there is no contemporary or archaeological evidence to support any of the story of Mohammed as a prophet of Islam. The Qur’an contains little in the way of a narrative which links the character of Mohammed or the events and theology he is alleged to have espoused. The book now is very largely composed of hadith, none of which is written before the 9th and 10th century and is basically added to as they went along to justify whatever law or practice the ruling class wished to implement, as the social system changed. The Qur’an by legend is believed to have been memorised word for word by several different people and carried by word of mouth alone for centuries. Given that the book is supposed to be the word of god and Mohammed his prophet, one has to ask, why in a thoroughly literate culture was that so? We all know from Chinese whispers and from folk legend and even from our own memories how quickly real events change in the telling and retelling. Yet still the book is held to be perfect in every way.

Whatever is not in the Qur’an can be put in by a hadith, which is an interpretation of an event which is discovered took place or a saying the prophet is said to have made. These can then be projected forward as judgment on contemporary events. In this sense the hadith far outweighs the Qur’an itself.

In the same way that many historians take as their starting point the version of events declared in the Bible, historians of Islam have often accepted the official accounts, as contained in these hadith, even though they are contradictory and were written down centuries later. For example, “Ameer Ali goes on to cite what purports to be a five- or 10-minute speech of Mohammed, word for word. This verbatim speech is only one of many quoted in his book, using sources written 200 years after Mohammed. This reheating of 9th century accounts of 7th century events as history is by no means unusual and is in fact the norm for most historians of Islam” (p299).

The main scientific problem for the traditional account of the life of Mohammed is that there are no contemporary writings, inscriptions or any other evidence to support it. Unlike the Jewish tale, there is no contemporary historian, or personal writer from 1st-century Judea with which to make a comparison or cross-check: “In fact there is no material now in existence that was written prior to the 9th century” (p301); and everything since is based on recycled, rewritten and re-edited earlier material, which may itself have been secondary or tertiary: “The traditional account, therefore, is not 7th-century history. The best that one could say about it, including the biography of Mohammed, is that it is an account of what 9th-century writers wanted to think was true of the 7th century” (p304).

John also shows quite forcibly the rise of the Arab empire was not the rise of an Islamic empire in accordance with modern myth. At the time of the alleged life of Mohammad in the 7th century, there is no mention of him during the rise and spread of the Arab empire. These stories and the centrality of the Qur’an were added hundreds of years after the event and are unsupported or contradicted by archaeological evidence. The book itself has been called a “fantastic reconstruction” made up of fragments of other work, mostly non-Arab, and based upon snatches of other cultures and histories, often badly and inaccurately translated into Arabic. The truth is that the Qur’an is pre-Islamic; it was only partially translated into Arabic and was greatly added to with amendments and endless explanations and hadith before being canonised as the holy book of the Arab empire. Islam came to define itself as a specifically Arab form of monotheism through a lengthy period of polemic with Christian and Jewish scholars. The new layer of Arab theological scholars was used to consolidate an Arab ruling class and institute a state religion to consolidate the empire.

The entire Muslim tradition about the early history of the text of the Qur’an and the life of Mohammad is manufactured. References to Mohammed as the highest authority of Islam and the law only became the norm from the mid-8th or 9th century: “Chains of transmission (isnads) that purport to authenticate the words or deeds of Mohammed down the centuries were mostly fabricated” (p355).

Behind the myths is an impressive piece of historical research and enquiry. But I fear that despite the scholarship and insights of this book it will not achieve the widespread publicity it deserves. Too much of the historical myth from the Torah, the Bible and the hadith are now starting points for historical construction and explanation without serious challenge as to their veracity.

Some of my friends and comrades might find a copy of this book in their Xmas stocking ... from Santa, of course.