Historians call the period from 800 to 200 BC the axial age. This period witnessed the introduction of major world religions. It was a period of great empires in Mesopotamia, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and then Greece. International politics had an impact on religion and the belief of the people in the Middle East and its surroundings. The Greek philosophy had reached its peak during this time. This period had a crucial effect on the development of Christianity after Jesus. During this time, polytheistic religions, history, and philosophy were setting the stage for shaping a religion that was founded by Jesus, and later compromised and reinterpreted by other people.
When the Assyrian Empire destroyed the kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, Judah was a weak kingdom. The great empires of the East were interested in destroying the rest of the Jews in Judah. The kings of Judah honored a pagan god in the Temple, and the priests denounced them for promoting paganism. King Hezekiah ruled Judah around 715 to 687 BC, and carried out religious and political reforms. But then his son and grandson did not follow his footsteps. Assyrian forces returned to Judah and reintroduced pagan worship. Then an important change took place in the international scene. The Assyrian empire was getting weaker, and Babylon was threatening to replace it as the major power in the Near East. In 597 BC, Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem and took Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and many of his people prisoners to Babylon. In 587 BC, Nebuchadnezzar burned Jerusalem. Its population was exiled as prisoners in Babylon or as refugees in Egypt. Their temple was destroyed, and the Ark was lost, which remains a mystery to this day.
The exile of the Judeans to Babylon was a major turning point in Jewish theology. The prior history of Israel now was reinterpreted in light of the burning of Jerusalem in 587, laying the foundation for the traditional biblical Pentateuch, Prophetic canon, and historical books. The Prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah believed that Yahweh had used the Babylonian Empire to punish the Israelites for their sins, and he therefore had the power to redeem them from captivity if they repented. The Jews hoped for a restored Judean kingdom under the leadership of an heir of the royal house of David. In 539 BC the kingdom of Babylon fell to the Persian Cyrus the great (600 - 529 BC). After the defeat of Babylon, he permitted a restoration of subject populations and local temples. The Persians did not allow the re-establishment of a Judean monarchy, but only a temple-state with the high priest as its chief administrator. The Persian Empire was the most powerful state in the world until its conquest two centuries later by Alexander the Great.
Zoroaster (628 - 551 BC) founded the Zoroastrian religion in Persia. The basic concept of this religion consists of an interesting mixture of monotheistic worship of Ahura Mazda (Lord Wisdom) and an ethical dualism of opposing Truth and Lie, which encompass the entire universe. All that is good derives from, and is supported by, Ahura Mazda's emanations: Spenta Mainyu (Holy Spirit) and his six assisting entities, Good Mind, Truth, Power, Devotion, Health, and Life. All evil is caused by Angra Mainyu and by his assistants. Angra Mainyu is evil by choice, having allied himself with Lie, whereas Spenta Mainyu has chosen Truth. So too, human beings must choose between Truth and Lie. Upon death each person's soul will be judged at the Bridge of Discrimination; the follower of Truth will live in paradise, and the adherents of Lie will fall into hell. All evil will eventually be eliminated on earth in an ordeal of fire and molten metal. The religious practice was centered about worship of fire. For example, a sacred flame was always kept burning in their temples. After Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire, the Zoroastrian religion underwent a constant decline. Eventually, the Persians regained their independence. During the Sassanid dynasty (226 - 651 AD), Zoroastrianism was again adopted as the state religion of Persia. A dualistic form of the Zoroastrian religion affected the fourth century Christianity in Manichaeism.
Confucius (551 - 479 BC) established a religion in China that is a mixture of sacred philosophy and ethical doctrine. Confucianism provides rules for the proper conduct of family, community, and political affairs. Although Confucianism became the ethic of the mandarin class, the elite group, Confucius himself came from a poor family. The principle upon which he built his doctrine is reciprocity, meaning to treat people as you want to be treated. This is considered central to producing an ideal relationship, and is recorded in the Analects, a collection of Confucius’s most famous sayings. Confucius also taught the importance of many other virtues, including loyalty, wisdom, self-control, piety, and self-development. Confucius used the family as a model for society. Those who are in power should rule for the well being of the people, while the rest of society should obey and respect the authority, as children do to their parents. Unlike the major religions, Confucianism is not oriented to the metaphysical. Confucius did not speculate about afterlife. In this religion there are no sins, only errors and mistakes.
[Next] [Table of Contents ]