on October 25, 2001
In The River of God, Gregory Riley shines light on much of the history of Christian origins often ignored by scholars. Most researchers of Christianity restrict themselves to the influence of the West (Greek and Roman) and often confuse Rabbinic Judaism with the Judaism of Jesus' times; Prof. Riley adds the whole of Middle Eastern religious history to the story of our search for God. Riley includes the development of Cannanite and Mesopotamian religion in the history of ancient Judaism. In addition to Greek ideas of Orphism, Pythagoreanism and Plato, he recognizes the Egyptian and Persian Zoroastrian influences on the development of Christian concepts of afterlife. Riley outlines the role of Persian Zoroastrianism on our understanding of Satan and a world savior. He details how various ancient religious models of God from both East and West as well as Greek science contributed to the development of our understanding of the division of body and soul and the creation of the doctrine of the Trinity in the fourth century. The River of God is not a general overview of world religions; it is specifically about the development of Christianity from a modern Christian perspective. Prof. Riley writes with a broad brush in his outline of the development of Christianity and, while scholars will quibble over some of the details and generalizations, I found The River of God to be an excellent overview of our understanding of "the process of the River of God."
on July 1, 2004
This work by Gregory Riley of the Claremont School of Theology, also author of "One Jesus, Many Christs," makes the case that the major doctrines of the New Testament and early Christianity came from the Jewish Gnostics, who were centered in Galilee, Jesus' home base.
The peoples of the Mediterranean world, including the Hebrews, all believed that the earth was a flat disk sitting on top of a disk of water. Over that was a hard dome, not more than a few thousand feet high, on top of which sat the gods. All the gods had bodies, including the Chief One. The Hebrews, like everyone else, never believed that God was an immaterial spirit or that people had spiritual souls that could unite with God after death. People just lived out their lives on earth under the gaze of the gods and the fates.
This view was challenged by the great mathematician Pythagoras in the 6th century b.c., who stated the earth is a sphere, and by Eratosthenes, who in the 3rd century b.c. computed that the earth is 40,000 kilometers in circumference, wonderfully close to its actual size. Riley says we cannot over emphasize the dramatic effect this new Greek science had on religious beliefs (the whole premise of his book is that religious beliefs are constantly changing in response to their times). For one thing, these discoveries made the material universe immense, infinite. For another thing, there was a commensurate change in the idea of God. The Greeks developed the via negativa method of describing the new God as immaterial, ineffable, and unknowable. Plato extended this idea of God to humans, describing their bodies as shells from which the soul-an emanation of God of sorts-would escape after death and return to God.
Riley says that these ideas were slow to catch on, but they did. In Jewish society they took root among the very well educated class, especially in Galilee-a true crossroad of many cultures and religions. (Jerusalem was in the isolated highlands). Riley says that at the time of Jesus, all the Pharisees, Essenes, Gnostics, and Hellenists together were a very tiny fraction of Jewish society. The educated classes among the Jews, especially the Gnostics, were very interested in the new Greek ideas of God. If God was all perfect, however, what caused evil in the world? For that answer, the Jewish Gnostics relied on Persian Zoroastrian religion, which proposed a cosmic conflict between the god of good and the god of evil.
The Gnostics had to demote the Evil One from a god to a fallen angel, but he served the purpose of drumming up all the evil and suffering in the world. In their scenario, a lesser emanation of God had created a very imperfect world, which God allowed the devil to corrupt and control in order to test his human creations. The New Testament teachings of Jesus embody the doctrines of the Jewish Gnostics almost verbatim. Riley emphasizes what revolutionary teaching this was at the time. People did not know they had immortal souls. Neither did they suspect what great danger they were in. This constituted the "new wine" of Jesus' teaching. Riley writes:
"Fundamental to the teaching of Jesus was the dualism of body and soul. From the point of view of religious studies, Jesus was a genius-what scholars call a master figure-and his dualism was unique. In many ways it was similar to that of Orphism, Pythagoranism, and Plato, yet it is fair to say that the cosmos of Jesus had a darker side, for he was also conscious of the spiritual warfare inherent in the kingdom of God. No Greek philosopher believed in the Devil, nor did the Zoroastrians have a view of body and soul based in science (as did the Greek philosophers), Jesus brilliantly combined both traditions into something new."
Riley says that the signature parable of the NT was the first parable seen in the Gospel of Mark (4:3-8, 14-20) of the sower going out to sow his seed. The seed that fell beside the road was picked up by the birds (the devil), on rocky ground (persecution), and in the weeds (cares and temptations of the world).
Riley states that the new doctrine overturned the values of the world, making death, suffering, and persecution the means of eternal happiness. Jesus himself would submit to "persecution" (orchestrated by the Devil, no less) to demonstrate his belief in the afterlife. The Devil would use every means of tripping up people, including the use of "false prophets and religions." This warning gave impetus to the desire of bishops from the beginning to stamp out religious dissent and other religions-all seen as instruments of the devil.
This negative view of the world goes a long way in explaining the incipient violence of Christianity and its ability to alienate people from the world, nature, and their own bodies and emotions. These doctrines still have a powerful grip on western society.
Riley is also able to point out where the writers of the New Testament and later Church councils were picking and choosing among Gnostic doctrines. For example, Plato had assigned five concentric shells that would isolate the Monad from the world, emanations of the godhead that did his bidding. The Gnostics extended this divine group, called the "pleroma" or "fullness," to 365 beings. The author of John limits these intermediary gods to the Word. The author of Colossians states twice that in Jesus alone "is the "pleroma" of God (The Holy Spirit would be worked in later.)
Jesus as springing from the Jewish Gnostics makes him a much more interesting character. Just his being from Galilee sets the authorities of Jerusalem on edge. And how did Jesus as the (perhaps illegitimate) son of a tradesman ingratiate himself with the well-educated Gnostic Hellenists of Galilee? He could have distinguished himself by his special talents or beauty or both.
on January 3, 2010
The River of God is a well written book by Prof. Gregory J. Riley on the origins of Christianity. Riley uses three metaphors to trace the development of Christianity-- of river, of genealogy, and of evolution, and he names his book with the metaphor of river. I think a more appropriate title for the book might be the River of Christianity because Riley is tracing the development of Christianity.
We, human beings, live our life based on how we understand life. Religion, as I understand it, is a combination of a view of life and a way of life based on it, and it varies according to time and place. Christianity is an instance of religion at a specific time and place. How this form of religion came into existence and how it further evolved is the subject of Riley's book. Several streams contribute to form a river, and it further splits into several tributaries. A human being is a child of two parents, and he/she with a partner further gives birth to children. A species evolves to adapt with the changing environment. Using these three metaphors in the background, Riley explains how Christianity evolved.
This, I think, is an honest and scientific approach to the study of religion, which is opposed to the fundamentalist approach, which is subjective, naïve, and biased. This approach doesn't entertain any claims of superiority to any form of religion. It places a specific form of religion in a time and place, and traces its genealogy backward and forward. A form of religion is not necessarily of more quality than its parents or its siblings. Survival of a form is not always due to better quality.
At any point in time and place a variety of religious forms exist simultaneously. If the people who hold these various views have to live together, they must have a pluralist and multicultural view. While holding on to one's own view, people must develop openness to the view of others.
By Christianity Riley means the religious movement that began in the first century CE Palestine and spread all over the Roman Empire and elsewhere. This movement has behind it all the religious forms in and around Palestine. The religion in Palestine was mainly Judaism. Palestine was a part of the Roman Empire in those days. Earlier, Palestine was under the Greek Empire, and before that it was under the Persian Empire. The Roman Empire inherited the religion of the Greek Empire, and so the Greco-Roman religion may be seen as one here for convenience. Hence besides Judaism, the Greco-Roman religion as well as the Persian religion was very much alive there.
Thus the religions of Palestine, Rome, Greece, and Persia may be seen as the direct parents of Christianity. The genealogy of each of these religions may be further traced backward. Judaism has behind it the Canaanite religions. The Greco-Roman religion has behind it the Indo-European religions, which shared the parentage of even the religions of the Far East. The Persian religion has behind it the religions of ancient Mesopotamia. Thus these religions may be considered the grandparents of Christianity. Christianity in turn was not the one unique child of its parents. It was one among many siblings. The other children either couldn't survive long or still survive unnoticeably. Christianity in turn gave birth to several offspring under the influence of various challenging religious forms. Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and various protestant churches may be seen as the children of Christianity.
Riley rightly observes that the geocentric worldview developed by the Greek Philosopher-scientists was the primary influence that formed the worldview of Christianity. This worldview is radically different from the worldview we see in the Hebrew Bible. In the Hebrew Bible, the world was very small, and it was managed by several gods who were not very different from human beings. In its place, the Greek worldview brought about a very huge world with one God who is non-material or spiritual.
God was identified as entirely unknowable and immaterial. Soon a problem was identified. How could the transcendent God of light be the creator of the material world of darkness? That is how an intermediary called Logos was necessary to create the world. Logos later became the second person of the Holy Trinity. Later a third person was identified -the Holy Spirit. The evolution of the idea of the Holy Spirit is hard to trace. Because God does not have a material body, whatever God wants to do in the world is accomplished by infusing His spirit in somone with a material body, which is probably how the idea started.
In the Hebrew Bible, God is the source of both good and evil. This idea of was challenged by the Persians, who have two different gods for good and evil. This Persian influence made them see God as the source of good only, and as the source of evil, a devil came into existence. An eschatological worldview also came into existence, with the world as an arena of cosmic battle between God and devil. A final judgment and an end of world when all evil would be wiped off was conceived. Such cosmic catastrophe would need a cosmic savior - the incarnated Logos.
A human being was seen as earth animated by God's breath in the Hebrew Bible. As God was pictured as entirely spiritual, a new view of human being was borrowed from the Greek view as a combination of matter and spirit. A human being was seen as a combination of eternal soul dwelling in a temporary clay vessel.
Thus Christianity was born from the union of Judaism and the Greco-Roman and persian worldviews. The Greco-Roman worldview was and is still strongly alive in the far eastern religions of India. But Riley fails to notice this connection between Hind and Hellas.
Today the river of Christianity is facing the challenge of a much bigger view of the world. The Christian geocentric view later gave place to a heliocentric view, and today we live in a world of galaxies, black holes, and subatomic particles. All branches of Science have advanced so much. Christianity will have to adapt with the changing worldview and create a strong basis for human existence or it will have to die out.
on August 10, 2004
The River of God not only deals with the subject of the origins of Christian beliefs, but also reviews alleged sources of Judeo-Biblical theology. Occasionally some frank statements are made and backed up fairly well. For example consider: "3 millenia prior to the Christianity of 4th century (Constantine) no one of record was a monotheist and certainly not a trinitarian. There was no devil, humans did not have souls and there was no need for a messiah. At the inception of Christianity neither the trinity nor the terms necessary to decribe the term existed." Each of these subjects as well as other beliefs are revealed to the reader as having pre-Christian non Judaic/Biblical origins which serve as an eye opener for someone new to the subject. Overall however, the specifics regarding time frame, proofs of where the beliefs originated and when and how they found their way into Judeo-Christian thought and the Bible are usually not well developed. Some important items such as bodily resurrection origins are only mentioned in passing. Persian Zoroastrianism is cited as the origin of many of the beliefs, but as some scholars have pointed out, because a belief is a time period contemporary of the Hebrew Bible, it is not an automatic that it ends up being incorporated into the Bible. Again, this is a decent book to begin research on the subject but if one is looking for specific detail regarding various belief origins you will have to for the most part research further.