The History of Religion- Books and Beliefs (Part 1)

I love reading for many reasons but one main reason is that it introduces me to new corners of our world.  Fact or fiction, reading can give us insight into different people, cultures and time periods.  I’ve recently read two interesting but very different books.  They both had to do with religion and they both gave me a lot of food for thought.

HeirstoForgottenKingdomsHeirs to Forgotten Kingdoms by Gerard Russell lived up to it’s subtitle Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East.  This book was a look into 7 middle eastern religious people groups; the Mandaeans, the Yazidis, the Zoroastrians, the Druze, the Samaritans, the Copts and the Kalasha.  I appreciated the in depth look into the culture, history and practice of these people and their religion.  It was very interesting to read about them while thinking about the current struggles in the Middle East because it shed light on some of the structural and historical reasons behind bits and pieces of these conflicts.

Christianity, Islam and these other much smaller religions have all existed in the same space for many many years.  These smaller religions have influenced, been influenced by and sometimes even mistaken for Islam and/or Christianity.  Here is an example of this influence, “Early Christians often depicted the Three Wise Men who were said to have visited Jesus as Persian Zoroastrians; although this is never specified in the account in the Gospel of Matthew itself, it was a lucky choice.  When the Persian armies conquered Bethlehem in AD 614, it is said that they spared the Church of the Nativity from the destruction they visited on the rest of the town, because they saw a depiction of three Magi at the church’s entrance.” pg. 77

And another example of the influence, “I [the book’s author] mused on the ways that belief in reincarnation may have helped them to win converts.  To a Christian I imagined the early Druze saying, “By accepting Mohammad as a prophet you are not rejecting Jesus: for Mohammed is Jesus reborn.” To a pagan who revered the Greek philosophers, they could argue that the Druze leader Hamza bin Ali was Pythagoras returned to life.  In later centuries, the famous Druze Characteristic of courage in battle was fortified by the belief that death would lead quickly to rebirth.  Going into battle, Druze soldiers would shout, “Who wants to sleep in their mother’s womb tonight?” pg. 141

I personally think that my Christian, American worldview also provides me with an interesting perspective. Here are two quotes that have me contemplating the relationship of these religions with Christianity as well as the question of Truth (not relative truth but Truth with a capital T).

The Mandaeans-

“Ours is the oldest religion in the world, ” said Sheikh Sattar.  “It dates back to Adam.”  He traced its history back to Babylon, though he said it might have some connection to the Jews of Jerusalem.  The Mandaeans believed in Adam, he said, who was the first man, and they accepted some other prophets who featured in the Hebrew Bible, such as Seth and Noah.  Above all, they revealed John the Baptist.  But they rejected Abraham and had their own holy books that were quite separate from the Bible or the Koran.” pg. 9-10

The Samaritans-

“The Samaritans rejects Jewish religious texts such as the books of Daniel and Isaiah: for them, the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament, sometimes also called the Torah) stands alone.  The Samaritan Torah is slightly different from the Jewish one…it’s version of the Ten Commandments does not include any ban on using the Lord’s name in vain, but it does include a commandment to build an altar on Mount Gerizim.  Benny* argues that the Samaritan Torah is the more authentic version.  His people preserved the text better over the centuries, as he sees it, because they stayed in one place, scrupulously copying the precious scriptures from old ones to new ones.” pg. 165

*Benny who “was something of a spokesman for the Samaritans.” pg. 164

It is these quotes and other similar ones that were in the back of my mind as I read the second book.  I’ll write more about Eternity in their Hearts in another post.  But for now I would recommend Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms to anyone who is interested in history and how it relates to our world today.  Read it to learn about the Middle East and it’s history, religion and people.

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