In A History of God, Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun turned comparative religion scholar, identifies a time in late antiquity called the Axial Age as a period when the quest for God-knowledge took a turn inward. The Axial Age occurred during the years 800-200 b.c.e., a pivotal time when the civilized cultures of India, Greece, and the Middle East developed new ways of thinking in response to the changing economic and social climates of their regions. Wealth and power shifted from kings and priests to the merchant middle class. The physical comforts of prosperity allowed the middle class to educate themselves and become more introspective. Inward reflection grew into conscience, fertile ground for an awareness of personal accountability for one’s actions and their impact on society at large. The concept of right living grew out of this new inwardness within and across these very different cultures in similar ways, despite their isolation from one another.
In the Middle East, the Hebrew prophet Isaiah conceived a reformed idea of Yahweh after a traumatic visitation by a deity that resembled the God of Moses and Abraham, but with a darker, moodier tone and a plea that his people practice their faith through action rather than ritual. His message warned that the Israelites would be cast out of Judah as punishment, and only hardship lay ahead. Not only did Yahweh despair of the Israelites practicing pagan rituals and sacrifice along with temple prayer to the One God (an accepted form of Jewish worship for ages); Isaiah also insisted that a deeper understanding of God could come only in the form of compassion toward others.
While the Israelites contemplated this shift from atmospheric pageantry to well-considered moral action, a chasm was forming in Judaic thought between the Hellenistic wisdom philosophies of Plato and Aristotle among Greek Jews and the revelations of the biblical Prophets among Palestinian Jews. How can one come to know God? Each discipline required a learned seeker schooled in philosophy or mysticism. However, epistemological debate concerned the upper classes only; the lower classes took the easier path of performing myth-based rituals of the...
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