Behind the Myths

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John Pickard

Behind the Myths is a Marxist study of the origin of myths about the three major Abrahamic religions - the stories the holy books tell about how their religions were born.

Pickard examines the history of the Israelites and looks at why the scriptures tell a different story. The early Israelites did not come out of Egypt and were not a separate race from the Canaanites; and there was no Conquest. They were far from monotheistic; Yahweh even had a goddess consort, Asherah.

The history in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) probably dates to the 7th century BC and reflects the "spin" of the priestly elite returning from exile in Babylon and the Judaean King Josiah's ruling class. They wanted to consolidate political and religious power around the Jerusalem Temple and to inherit the mantle of Israel from the northern kingdom, which had been devastated by the Assyrians.

Pickard's examination of Christian origins goes a bit too far, in my opinion, in joining the "Jesus never existed" camp. He argues that the proto-Christians, which he calls "Joshua cults", were part of a wider movement within Judaism of resistance and messianism. Then stories about several different leaders (quite a few of them named Jeshua, too; the name means "saviour") got amalgamated into the mix.

The revolutionary content of the early movement was edited out by Pauline churches outside revolutionary Judaea, and the primitive democracy of the communities led by elected presbyters became distorted as proselytising focus shifted to Gentiles and a new hierarchy of full-time bishops and deacons (the "apostolic succession") took power.

The administrative structure of the churches, expanding upon the tradition in the synagogues, provided a layer of local government which was useful to Rome. Christianity grew as a consequence of socio-econo-political upheaval in an Empire unable to sustain itself without continual wars of expansion.

The section on Islam shows how the new religion formed out of and in opposition to Christianity and Judaism and conducted a polemic against other monotheisms. This was not a religion of militant monotheists storming out of the desert. Its origins lie in Syria and Iraq, not Medina and Mecca, and the religion crystallised well after the life of Mohammed (who, like Jesus, was largely mythical), when the Arab Conquest was already underway. It served the interests of a ruling class who needed a unifying, "fully Arab" ideology.

I would have welcomed a chapter on how origin myths of the Abrahamic religions differed from earlier ones, and perhaps comparison with polytheisms.

It is delightful to read a book about religion which sees ideas as stemming from material conditions and class conflict rather than from people's heads or the mouths of preachers and messiahs.

Behind the Myths is published by Authorhouse, £ 17.99