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Author Topic: Were the Ancient Semitic originally Pagan?  (Read 5156 times)
Earendil
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« Topic Start: February 04, 2010, 11:05:35 pm »

I read that they originally worshipped many deities before gradually transitioning from polytheism to monotheism. Here's a link to the article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Semitic_religion
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« Reply #1: February 04, 2010, 11:13:03 pm »

I read that they originally worshipped many deities before gradually transitioning from polytheism to monotheism. Here's a link to the article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Semitic_religion

Yep. Babylonians, Assyrians, Sumerians, Hittites - all polytheistic. That's where we get deities like Ishtar, Inanna, Astarte, Asherah, Enki, Erishkigal, Sin, Baal...
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« Reply #2: February 05, 2010, 12:24:36 am »

I read that they originally worshipped many deities before gradually transitioning from polytheism to monotheism. Here's a link to the article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Semitic_religion

Only if you are equating Pagan with polytheist...

There is evidence that they were polytheists, and that El (or YHWH) was a single deity among many, but since classical paganism (as a religious descriptor) was a concept developed for religions outside the pale of the Christian religion, applying it to a period preceding its use as describing non-Christian religion, is a bit problematic.
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« Reply #3: February 05, 2010, 09:15:41 am »

Only if you are equating Pagan with polytheist...

There is evidence that they were polytheists, and that El (or YHWH) was a single deity among many, but since classical paganism (as a religious descriptor) was a concept developed for religions outside the pale of the Christian religion, applying it to a period preceding its use as describing non-Christian religion, is a bit problematic.

By that definition, Jews and Musilms would be considered pagan as well since they are non-Christian.

Personally, I see no problem with calling the polytheist religion (before it changed into what is recognizably Judaism) of that area pagan.
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« Reply #4: February 05, 2010, 09:50:37 am »

Personally, I see no problem with calling the polytheist religion (before it changed into what is recognizably Judaism) of that area pagan.

In the Bible classes I've taken, paganism roughly equates to polytheism (with a lovely explanation that no, pagans never worshiped Satan, and yes, the ancient Israelites sacrificed animals, too). Personally I don't think "non-Christian religion" is a good enough definition for paganism, for precisely the reason Melamphoros brought up - "paganism" would include the later religions of Judaism and Islam.

So I did my Hebrew Bible paper last semester on the development of monotheism out of the ancient Near East. The ancient Israelites (not Jews- Judaism developed towards the end of Old Testament chronology) were pretty singular in recognizing one and only one deity. Other cultures in the area, like the Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, Cannanites, etc, recognized a bunch of deities. Once I grab my notes and books (when I'm /not/ rushing off to class) I'll write some more on this. Smiley
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« Reply #5: February 05, 2010, 02:11:38 pm »

By that definition, Jews and Musilms would be considered pagan as well since they are non-Christian.

Personally, I see no problem with calling the polytheist religion (before it changed into what is recognizably Judaism) of that area pagan.

But the problem arises in using a term which has a specific historic and temporal context (classical paganism) as a descriptor of a cultural group which far predates the use of the term. Polytheist would be a far less troublesome term to use, imo.
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« Reply #6: February 05, 2010, 02:13:47 pm »

But the problem arises in using a term which has a specific historic and temporal context (classical paganism) as a descriptor of a cultural group which far predates the use of the term. Polytheist would be a far less troublesome term to use, imo.

I had meant to add this, but especially if the point (at least in this thread) is to some how link modern Paganism with early Semetic cultures...
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« Reply #7: February 05, 2010, 02:49:24 pm »

But the problem arises in using a term which has a specific historic and temporal context (classical paganism) as a descriptor of a cultural group which far predates the use of the term. Polytheist would be a far less troublesome term to use, imo.

Whatever the original meaning of paganism, as a descriptor for a type of religion, I think it's safe to say that today it's no longer simply linked to ancient Greece and Rome, but to all original, pre-Christian, polytheistic religions, regardless of geographic location. Asatru is reconstructed Norse religion, for example, and Kemeticism draws on Egyptian paganism.
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« Reply #8: February 05, 2010, 03:37:54 pm »

But the problem arises in using a term which has a specific historic and temporal context (classical paganism) as a descriptor of a cultural group which far predates the use of the term. Polytheist would be a far less troublesome term to use, imo.

Actually, no.  If you look at the scholarship, "paganism" is the umbrella term used by scholars for pre- and/or non-Christian, pre- and/or non-Muslim, and pre- and/or non-Jewish religions of Europe and the Middle East.  (I add the "and/or non-" bit because some particular pagan cults/groups arose after the advent of Christianity, and so forth.)  In my copy of Religions of the Ancient World (ed. Sarah Iles Johnston), an extremely important compendium of knowledge about the Pagan religions of the Mediterranean, written by the leading experts for each region, "paganism" is used quite freely to describe pre- and non-Jewish religions of the Middle East, including the various non-YHVH cults that the Old Testament is always condemning.

"Paganism" does not, in scholarship, ever just mean "classical Paganism" -- note the fact that you have to add the modifier "classical."  And not all religions that fall into the "non-JCI religions of the region" rubric were polytheistic, either, as monotheist or henotheist cults in places like Egypt attest. 
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« Reply #9: February 09, 2010, 05:56:15 pm »

I read that they originally worshipped many deities before gradually transitioning from polytheism to monotheism. Here's a link to the article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Semitic_religion

Ancient Semitic - yeah (Hittites weren't semitic to my knowledge, nor was their language semitic). The best record of ancien Canaanite-Semitic beliefs are the findings in the ancient city of Ugarit.
Now, about Israelites (as already written by Ellen - Judasim has its origins in the second temple period, circa 500 BC) - it is harder to point out. The OT writers knew the religions of their brethren, and you could say that the OT "argues" with those beliefs. I would say that the OT has three layers - Henotheistic layer, interim layer and the monotheistic layer. So I would say that the Israelites were first Polytheistic, then Henotheistic and finally monotheistic.
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« Reply #10: February 10, 2010, 03:25:11 am »

And something else I wanted to add -

Even looking into the OT itself on the most simple story level - Abraham was actually the first to follow the biblical god, so that probably means that his forefathers had another faith. Rivka (Rebbeca) stole the idols of her father, Lavan, when she moved out with Yaakov (Jacob).

There is also a legend (Agada) in Judaism, which says tells that Abraham, when he was a boy, broke all of his father's idols.

These things, on a simple story level, seem to denote that the Israelites weren't always monotheistic.

Furthermore - by seeing how many prophets condemd idolatry, one can understand that there were a lot of polytheistic practices among the Israelites.
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« Reply #11: February 27, 2010, 02:08:35 pm »

There is evidence that they were polytheists, and that El (or YHWH) was a single deity among many

This is not my area of expertise, so I may be wrong on this, but my understanding has always been that it would be more accurate to call the ancient Israelites henotheists, as they accepted the existence of many gods, but believed there was only one for their people.
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« Reply #12: February 27, 2010, 04:04:17 pm »

This is not my area of expertise, so I may be wrong on this, but my understanding has always been that it would be more accurate to call the ancient Israelites henotheists, as they accepted the existence of many gods, but believed there was only one for their people.

It depends at which point in time you're assessing their belief structure and whether it's the beliefs of the high class priesthood or the commoners - also whether we're talking the pre-Kingdom wanderers of the desert, the Northern or Southern Kingdom, or the time of the second exile. Until the Israelite culture adopted what can be understood as Judaism (which was not the religion of the Old Testament), it's difficult to make sweeping generalizations of what Israelite religion was. We know what the various priests said... and we know that wasn't exactly what the Average Jacob and Rachel practiced on a daily basis, in their homes.

Henotheism/molatry certainly took part in Israelite religion! There's definitely a lot of "many gods, but ours is the god for us (and also the best)" throughout the Old Testament that only later gave way to something more closely approximating monotheism.
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