by ProfDave, ©2022
(Mar. 3, 2022) — Welcome to the history of World Civilization! Are you civilized yet? So what were things like three thousand years ago and what do you need to know about it? First, just a little bit of humility: history was already half over! Second, more humility: we do not know very much about it. Thirdly, still more humility: most of our ancestors were still living in mud huts – or skin tents.
Agriculture, that is, the Neolithic revolution, had come to only limited areas of America and Africa. The Olmec in Mexico, Caral in Peru, and Kush in the upper Nile region of Africa had built cities but left no historical records that have been found. Most Europeans lived in Neolithic villages, practicing mixed agriculture (grains and herds) with tools of local stone and bone or imported cold-hammered metal. Their religion seems to have been animism, local fertility shrines, and/or a pantheon of gods identified with natural forces. Human sacrifice was ubiquitous. That they were capable of large-scale organization is clear from the huge megaliths (like Stonehenge) constructed all over western Europe several centuries earlier, but they produced no cities or written records that we know of.
Horticulture was well developed in south and southeast Asia. On the steppes of central Asia lived nomadic herdsmen such as the Indo-Europeans who would play such a huge role in the history of early Europe. Theirs was a society in constant motion under the open sky. Not surprisingly, their gods were sky gods. Their mastery of the horse revolutionized ancient warfare, but we know them mostly for their language from which most European tongues derive (except Basque, Finnish, and Hungarian).
On the other hand, highly sophisticated civilizations with long histories and ripe traditions existed in Egypt, Crete, the fertile crescent, the Indus and the Yellow River valleys. Civilization is typically defined as a society with an urban focus, distinct political and military structures, social structures based on economic differentiation, material complexity, religious structures, record keeping, artistic and intellectual activity. I would invite you to criticize this definition. African and American peoples built cities and kingdoms with no apparent writing systems. Paleolithic peoples engaged in complex religious, artistic, and intellectual activity. That seems to be part of being human. But the point is that the great civilization in these five regions exhibited all these characteristics on a grand scale for up to six thousand years before our time!
Three thousand years ago was actually the twilight of the Egyptian New Kingdom under the 21st dynasty. The pyramids were already 1500 years old. The Empire of Thutmosis III had dissolved in chaos centuries earlier, and Egypt turned inward, leaving Mesopotamia to warring city states and waves of Barbarian invaders – Kassites, Hurrians, Aramaeans. Into the western end of the Crescent had come the Phoenicians, the Philistines (sea peoples) and then the Hebrews. David was King of Israel 1005-965. The Minoan civilization of Crete had collapsed quite suddenly a century earlier, perhaps by earthquake or perhaps conquest by mainland Greek Mycenaeans. Greece, too, was descending into its Homeric dark ages, a time of great myths but not much civilization. No wonder ancient peoples looked backward rather than forward.
About this time the Hittites, from Asia Minor, had introduced the use of iron weapons and the Iron Age spread through the Middle East. In northern Iraq (as we would call it), Assyria acquired good iron and good generals. It built a great empire, 911 – 612, by cruelty and terror. Peoples were transplanted en masse, detaching them from their local gods. For example, most of Israel was destroyed and repopulated with exiles from other lands.
Babylon revived to defeat Assyria in 612 and erect a great empire by combining gods. To continue the example, Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jews transported to Babylon. To the northeast, Iranian tribes united under a “king of kings.” Cyrus the Great (559-530) conquered the entire region, spanning three continents, and uniting by tolerance twenty peoples with dozens of gods in one Persian Empire. It lasted until 323. Cyrus allowed the return of Jews to Jerusalem – on condition they pray for him as loyal citizens of Persia.
You can tell a lot about a people by their religion. Did the society create the religion or did the religion create the society? Indeed, religion has been called the soul of a civilization. We know very little about the beliefs of prehistoric peoples, but we know they were religious because of the way they buried their dead. If you find a set of bones that isn’t buried with ceremonies, it ain’t human! We don’t just put our dead out with the trash. This was brought home to me as a child when I found the remains of a cow left in a pasture. The other cows took no notice! Just stepped over it and continued grazing. Burial customs testify to the value placed upon the body, the ancestors, and a belief in some kind of continued existence. The Egyptian civilization revolved around preparation for the afterlife, if only for the pharaoh, who was thought to be a god anyway. The pyramids were monuments to the power and eternal presence of the great kings of long ago. After death, the soul was to be weighed in the balances of judgment. If it was lighter than a feather, it would be admitted to paradise. Egyptian polytheism emphasized the fruitful cycle of sun and Nile.
Mesopotamian religion was also polytheistic. It was a theocratic society in which priests were very important and kings ruled as gods or descendants of gods. Each city was closely identified with its own god and goddess and kingdoms were united by annexing goddesses. Wars were battles between deities. The natural world was filled with capricious and malignant spiritual forces. “Acts of God” really were the expression of supernatural whims. People were slaves of the gods, and responsible to feed, entertain and appease them with sacrifices. Ritual prostitution practiced at the tops of their ziggurats (temple pyramids) was supposed to inspire the gods to send rain. A great deal of effort and expertise were expended by the priests in augury, attempting to discern the future and to manipulate the spirit world. In the latter half of the millennium, astrology became the focus in Babylon. Among the Phoenicians and Canaanites, on the other end of the Crescent, child sacrifice was a common method of impressing the gods.
Religion and morality were separate spheres in much of the ancient world. Although civic gods were associated with civic law, their behavior was above the law. The gods of ancient polytheism were conceived as part of nature, part of the cosmos. Often, as Aten (the Sun god of Egypt), Isis (the Nile), etc., they directly represented and presided over natural forces. Even in creation myths they are themselves creatures, working in pre-existent frameworks, with pre-existent materials, subject to pre-existent law or fate. Even Akhenaton’s experiment with monotheism attributed divinity to the sun, a natural object. Anthropologists have noted that many polytheistic systems posit a shadowy god or impersonal force beyond the gods who is the real creator and judge over them. G.K. Chesterton theorized that polytheism evolved from monotheism because one transcendent god was too difficult for early man to deal with and to manipulate. We do not really know. In any case, ethical standards exist apart from the gods in polytheism, and are not derived from them. Not only do the gods frequently violate community standards, but sometimes require deeds of horror to get their attention, so to speak. Such as roasting infants alive in the arms of a red-hot idol, burying children in the walls of their cities or employing men and women to serve as shrine prostitutes.
Child sacrifice and temple prostitution were in marked contrast to the ethical monotheism of the Hebrews. I cannot pretend to be entirely objective about what your text calls “Hebrew traditions,” that is the Bible, but neither can I assume that you are entirely familiar with it. It is a collection of the oldest literature commonly read today – especially in the West – the all-time best seller – but it is a lot more sold than read these days. It has been more thoroughly examined and criticized than any other book, but allegations of fraud or fabrication have not stuck. In my opinion it is an honest account of Hebrew and early Christian spiritual thinking over 1500 years. You may or may not agree with the literal supernatural interpretations given to those experiences, but it is probably, at least, what they thought they saw and heard.
These “traditions” indicate Hebrew roots both in Sumer and in Egypt. As told in the Torah (the first portion of the Bible), they were a pastoral people from Mesopotamia that migrated to Egypt (at the time of the Hyksos, the shepherd kings, probably) where they became enslaved. After several centuries they were liberated and given their distinctive national law by Moses (or God). They established themselves in what we call Palestine during the interval between Hittite and Assyrian dominance (1450-670 BC).
The Torah has interesting parallels with Mesopotamian legends and laws, both in form and in certain phrases, but is fundamentally different in its monotheism and realism. The Hebrews were not a particularly imaginative, abstract or spiritual people. Natural things were natural things to them, not inhabited by spirits. Elohim or JHWH (meaning “I AM” – the name too holy to be spoken by good Jews) was not part of nature, like Akhenaten’s sun god, but the maker of the cosmos – the heavens and the earth. He came from outside time and space. He was invisible and immaterial not, like other gods, natural at all. The Hebrews were forbidden to associate him or represent him with any natural form. He was infinite and eternal; the cosmos was not, but it was his work. Thus nature and work and were validated as from him. Man, male and female, were made in his image (thus not entirely natural either). There were implications here for human rights and equality. The world was rational, and natural law was His law, but he was free to work in it. This balanced science and miracle. History was interpreted as a dialogue between divine and human purposes, moving towards a promised end. There was purpose and meaning in existence, but augury and astrology were forbidden. The ethical system given through Moses was seen as an expression of God’s holy nature. “Be ye holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” That is ethical monotheism in a nutshell.
The Hebrews were a chosen people, set apart by male circumcision, dietary laws, and a distinctive ceremonial system centered on one worship location, eventually in Jerusalem. Their distinctiveness was continually threatened and compromised by the influence of their neighbors, however. The Prophets warned of punishment and destruction – which came at the hands of the Assyrians (621) and Babylonians (526). Many peoples and religions vanished with hardly a trace as empire after empire swallowed up the Middle East over the next millennium. Remarkably, neither the Hebrews nor Judaism were extinguished by generations – no, millennia – of exile, but the sacred writings were collected and studied in local synagogues and individual families. Both the people and the faith remain to this day. And especially the writings. The tribal cult of the Hebrews became one of the great world religions. But that is not all. Muslims and especially Christians owe a great debt to this same heritage.
Another prophet of ethical monotheism deserves mention, although he comes a bit later. That is the Persian Zoroaster (628-552 also called Zarathustra). He believed in a supreme creator, Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Light, and emphasized the moral struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, which is the human condition. Zoroastrianism became known, over centuries, for its dualism, and darkness later became personified in the anti-god, Ahriman or Angra Mainyu (evil spirit). Adherents were to contribute by their conduct to the cosmic war between the two. Note: Ahriman differs from the Jewish and Christian Satan in being one of two sons of Ahura Mazda (one evil and one good), and only slightly less powerful than the Creator himself.
Meanwhile, in the Indus River valley (modern Pakistan), the Harappan civilization had flourished for a thousand years, then suddenly it collapsed about 1500 BCE. Unfortunately, we cannot decipher their writings. An Indo-European people, the Aryans, moved in about the same time – possibly as conquerors, more likely simply filling a vacuum created by Harappan decline. They had been nomadic herds-people, credited with the invention of the stirrup and the use of chariots. 3000 year ago they had spread across northern and central India. Gradually, they settled and became a ruling elite throughout most the subcontinent. They brought iron and the iron plow from the Middle East, making cultivation of the tropical Ganges valley highly successful. They also brought in an Aramaic alphabet, allowing them to record their traditions in the Vedas. They were led by tribal chieftains, or rajas, and later kings, or maharajas belonging to a warrior class. The Macedonian invasion of Alexander the Great in the 4th century provoked Chandragupta Maurya (324-301) to create the Mauryan Empire that lasted until 183.
The layering of light-skinned Indo-European elites (Aryans) over the indigenous dark-skinned agricultural peoples of India (Dravidians) set a pattern of class and caste for the next three thousand years. Read the Law of Manu. Mankind was created separately in four different varna, or colors: priests, warriors, commoners or merchants, and those who served them. The top three were Aryan. The vast majority of the population existed to serve: peasant sudras. Outside the system entirely (where did they come from?) were pariahs or dalats – untouchables – non-humans fit only to collect the garbage. These castes were strictly hereditary and intermarriage was forbidden.
Hinduism was not founded at any particular time, but simply grew. Indeed, it is not really one religion, but a whole family of religions. The four Vedas recount traditional hymns and ceremonies going back into the Indo-European past. There was a pantheon of gods and goddesses of natural forces and human concerns much like we will see later in Greece, Rome, and Germany. These were all, after all, Indo-European peoples. There was also a concept of dharma – a law of righteousness governing all, from the king to the outcast. The gods were served and placated by human sacrifice, later by animal sacrifice, and later still by ascetic self- denial or self-abuse.
About the 6th century (500’s BC) commentaries were added to the Vedas called the Upanishads. Through asceticism and meditation it was thought possible to transcend the material world and “enter a world of truth and bliss beyond earthly joy and sorrow.” This is the origin of Yoga. A vast amount of detailed speculation arose out of meditation. Reincarnation emerged as an important idea about the time of the Upanishads. Hindu cosmology saw the universe as eternal and time as cyclical: the wheel of life. Brahman, originally chief of the gods, became an impersonal, comprehensive, Great World Soul. Under that vast umbrella dwelt an open-ended range of gods and entities, spiritual and physical. One text says there are 35,000 Hindu deities, others say there are more Indian gods than there are Indian people. Life is hard, so the ultimate objective is to escape the endless cycle of rebirth and be merged into the One. One’s lot in life and one’s progress through the great cycle is determined by karma, the balance of good deeds carried forward from one life to the next. Thus, the privileged and the suffering both deserve the good or bad things they are given. Starving patiently as a pariah may earn one an up-grade in the next reincarnation. Note that this worldview was relatively fatalistic and reinforced social and economic inequality until modern times.
Siddhartha Gautama lived in northern India in the late 6th century as a member of the privileged warrior class. At the age of 29, he abandoned his home and family to find the cure for human suffering. This led to a spiritual experience of “enlightenment” and what we call Buddhism. He set forth a philosophical system of personal salvation which began with Hinduism but discarded caste, priesthood and gods. He identified “four noble truths.” 1. Life is pain. 2. Pain is caused by desire since desire is inevitably frustrated. 3. If you cease from desire, you cease from pain. 4. There is an eight-fold path to overcome desire through right knowledge, right purpose, right speech, right conduct, right occupation, right effort, right awareness, and right meditation. In other words, getting everything right? Forgive me! It may not have been a religion – Gautama was a mild atheist – but certainly it was a distinct worldview. This world with its suffering, and the individual soul itself, were illusions to be overcome through enlightenment. Reincarnation and karma were retained, but the objective, nirvana or reunion with the World Soul, was the extinction of selfhood – “blowing out of the candle”
Buddhism won the adherence of Ashoka (269-232 BC), the greatest ruler of India. He sent out Buddhist missionaries throughout India and abroad, but Buddhism never achieved majority status in its homeland. Perhaps it was too esoteric, in its early form, for the common mind, and too counter-cultural for the elites. It is one thing to enjoy the pleasures and endure the suffering of this life in hope of a better one next time around, and quite another to reject the whole experience as an illusion. The caste system proved very resilient. If you had the advantage, why would you throw it away?
Let us move on to the Yellow River valley of northern China, 3000 years ago. Civilization had existed there for a thousand years, at least, and the Shang (2nd) dynasty had lasted for more than four centuries. Predominantly an agricultural society, it was ruled by a warrior aristocracy. We do not know a whole lot about them, except that they attempted to communicate with the gods by “oracle bones” and sacrificed attendants to accompany their deceased masters into the afterlife. I hope your boss is healthy! Later, they just buried terra cotta statues of them. There are also references to one supreme creator-god. Respect – if not actual worship – for the ancestors was already a very important feature of Chinese civilization. That brings us to the new Zhou dynasty (1045-221 BC). Incidentally, it was this dynasty that began the Great Wall of China to keep the northern barbarians out.
The Zhou Emperor claimed to rule by the “mandate of heaven.” He was, so to speak, heaven sent as the wisest and most fit to rule. Heaven was not a person or persons, but “an essentially benevolent force” committed to harmony and order. There was a law of heaven, both moral and natural, underlying all existence. This idea was expressed in the Rites of Zhou and formed the basis of classical Chinese ethical and political thought. Another theme of the early Chinese worldview is the notion of balanced or alternating forces in the cosmos: light and dark, good and evil, male and female, yang and yin. Good times would be followed by bad times. These forces and cycles could not be controlled, but they could be understood.
By far the most important figure in articulating the ancient Chinese worldview would be Confucius (551-479), the Socrates of the East. As a teacher and civil servant, he collected and edited earlier traditions. His teachings come down to us primarily in the Analects, conversations with his students – but there are many versions and additions. Confucius assumed the rational order of the universe but was primarily concerned with the pragmatic and ethical ordering of life and politics here below. There was a Dao, a way, a duty to follow for everything and everyone – in harmony with the whole. His social philosophy revolved around ren, compassion or love, and self-restraint. Somewhat of a social critic, he saw the society of his day as completely broken. The state must govern by virtue, not by mere law. “Good government consists in the ruler being a ruler, the minister being a minister, the father being a father, and the son being a son.”
Taoism (spelled with either a D or a T) was in some ways the opposite to Confucianism. The Way of the Tao, attributed to the shadowy Lao Tzu, was contemporary with Confucius. While the latter saw duty and work as the Way, Lao Tzu advocated inaction as the will of heaven: “to act spontaneously and let nature take its course.”
Confucianism and Daoism were not originally religions, but they were popular philosophical and ethical worldviews – the most important ones of the “hundred schools” that the late Zhou period bequeathed to China. Together they came to dominate Chinese thought down to the twentieth century. Daoism became a religion by merging with popular beliefs in the search of power and immortality. Polytheism, animism and ancestral spirits remained the religion of the people. There was considerable overlap.
Disclaimer: Your Prof is no great expert on comparative religions or Asiatic history. My field is European history and I have read the Bible all my life, but it has been a long time since I studied Asia. If any of you are “real” Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists, Daoists – not American mutations – please feel free to set us all straight. No one understands a religion like an adherent.
By 2500 years ago, several of the great world religions and/or worldviews that exist today had been established in different world areas. They are distinctive to this day in the East. Most of the religions of the Middle East and the West have passed away – but not without leaving marks. The distinctive western and Islamic worldviews were yet to develop. We cannot hope to understand our world without understanding these fundamental ways of thinking about the universe and human life in it.
Chesterton, G. K. The Everlasting Man (1925). E-book retrieved from Bible Explorer 4.
Childe, Gordon. What Happened in History, Rev Edn. Baltimore: Penguin, 1954.
Flood, Gavin. “History of Hinduism,” BBC Religions (2008). Retrieved 4/1/11 from
Duiker, William L. and Spielvogel, Jackson J. World History, 6th edn., Boston:
Gascoigne, Bamber, “History of Buddhism,” History World (2001). Retrieved 4/1/11
Halley, Henry H. Halley’s Bible Handbook, 24th Edn. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965.
McEvedy, Colin. The Penguin Atlas of Ancient History. Baltimore: Penguin, 1967.
Riegel, Jeffrey. “Confucius,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Rev 2006. Retrieved
3/31/11 from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/confucius/
Scramuzza, Vincent M. and MacKendrick, Paul L.. The Ancient World. New York:
Henry Holt, 1958.
Sherman, Dennis and Salisbury, Joyce. The West in the World, 3rd edn. Boston:
Sunshine, Glenn S.. Why You Think the Way You Do. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.
“Zoroastrianism,” New World Encyclopedia (2005). Retrieved 4/1/11 from
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.