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Common Errors in English Usage and More Answers to questions asked by students- World Civilzations

Questions about Islam

How long did it take to make the Alhambra.
Most of the construction was done over 120 years, from 1238 to 1358; but undoubtedly not continuously or at a steady pace.

What was the purpose of the fountain in the Alhambra?
It is traditional to have water features like pools and fountains in Islamic architecture. They help cool the air and make life more pleasant.

I am curious about why the Jews had to convert or leave the country.
Queen Isabella was a religious fanatic who was determined to cleanse Spain of the last traces of people who were not Christians. Columbus sold her on the idea of financing his voyage to the Far East partly to raise money to fund a new crusade aimed at the Muslims in the Holy Land.

What are the Spanish songs How did other subdivisions of Islam react to Sufism? Their cultural views seem somewhat different?
Sufis have often been persecuted (and are now being persecuted) by other Muslims, but because many of the greatest poets and most popular musicians of Islam have been Sufis, their influence is great.

Do Muslims and Hindus still live by each other?
In India Muslims and Hindus do live in the same cities, though often in separate neighborhoods. Old Delhi is dominated by Muslims, New Delhi by Hindus, for instance. As Hindu nationalism has become more aggressive in recent years, there has been a tendency for the two to separate; but there have been long periods in which religion didn’t separate people that much, especially in the cities.

Why is Islam so tolerant of Hinduism when it conflicts with it in so many ways?
It wasn’t always tolerant. Some Muslim rulers of India were fanatics who destroyed as many Hindu temples as possible; but others were not particularly religious and were happy to live and let live. Remember, the Hindus always vastly outnumbered the Muslims. They couldn’t convert or kill them all.

What about belly dancers? Did they originate in Muslim countries?
Yes, but they have nothing to do with Islam, which generally frowns on dancing (except for Sufis). Here’s a page on the history of “belly dance.”

What about Fatima?
Fatima was the name of Muhammad’s daughter, his only child,; but the Fatima you’re probably thinking of is the Virgin of Fatima, an apparition of the Virgin Mary near Fatima, Portugal. Read about it here.

Where did Gypsies originate?
Most modern scholars think they emigrated from northern India (now Pakistan) West into Europe. You can read more about this history of the Gypsies here. There is a terrific documentary of the various kinds of Gypsies and their music called Latcho Drom. I requested it for the library, but it doesn’t seem to have arrived yet.

Explain more bout Sufi practices and the role of poetry.
For general background, see the Sufism site you can look at this site. Other resources: “What is Sufism?” Sufism naturally lends itself to poetry, because mysticism works through symbols, the language of poetry. Human love is compared to divine love, the intoxication of wine to the rapture of the human soul as blends with the divine spirit of God. Much Sufi poetry reads to Westerners as extremely sensual and physical; but it is read by believers as allegorical, like the Hindu erotic poems addressed to Krishna in your reader. Visit the Rumi Website. See also Irene Markoff’s “Introduction to Sufi Music and Ritual in Turkey.”

I don’t know if this has something to do with Islam, but I was wondering why most people in the Middle East don’t want their pictures taken.
I hadn’t heard this, and I don’t know if it’s true. However, some very conservative Muslims and Jews alike are opposed to photographs of people, and films and television as well. They make up a small minority of people in the Middle East, however. Many people are irritated when total strangers invade their privacy by snapping pictures of them without asking first. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with religion.

Please show more of the paintings and talk more about who would have painted them.
I am not an expert on Persian miniatures (the paintings I showed in class), but there is a good exhibit online here.

I would like to know more about how they make the writing into pictures.
Arabic lends itself in its many scripts to being shaped into attractive abstract designs, including some that resemble plant and animal life. See the Islamic Art and Calligraphy pages.

In the last lecture you mentioned the bump on the forehead. Is that why the Muslims wear the painted red dot on their forehead?
The red dot (tilak) is originally Hindu, but is generally worn by South Asians today merely as a body decoration, with no particular religious significance. It has nothing to do with the mark on the forehead which is acquired by the pious by bumping their heads to their prayer mats.

More about what the Muslims think of other religions.
You’ll find a good deal of information about Muslim views of Christianity at Basic beliefs of Christians and Muslims side by side.

I would like to know more about the lives of Muslim women.
There is a very wide variety of lifestyles among Muslim women. Pakistan, one of the more conservative Muslim states, has had two women heads of state, which puts it ahead of the U.S. in that regard. Many Muslims tend to be rather defensive about Western critiques of their ideas on proper gender roles. For a typical defense, see “Women in Islam.” Another very interesting comparison of the roles of women in three religions is “Women in Islam versus Women in the Judaeo-Christian Tradition: The Myth and the Reality.” The extreme positions being taken by the Taliban in Afghanistan are not typical of most Muslims.

I would like to know more about whether they are any practices or rituals that are common between Islam and Christianity or Judaism.
All pray, all encourage charity to the poor, all have marriage ceremonies. Jews and Muslims both practice circumcision and have similar rules about the ritual butchering of animals for consumption. Many Christians, like Muslims, go on pilgrimages; but doing so is not a required practice for any Christian. Each religion observes one “holy day” a week.

I would like to know more about the Sunni & Shiite differences in Islam.
For a brief introduction, see “Shi’ism. There’s a very scholarly paper on Shiism for really serious scholars on “The Origins of Shi’ism.”

How does the Islamic religion tie in with Malcolm X and his preachings?
The Nation of Islam, or “Black Muslim” movement whose most famous founder was Elijah Muhammad, attempted to develop an alternative religion which would support the aspirations and hopes of African-Americans. Besides urging self-sufficiency and strict morality, he preached that black people were God’s chosen people, and that whites were “blue-eyed devils.” His most famous disciple and spokesman was Malcolm X. Elijah Muhammad held many unorthodox views, as Malcolm discovered when we traveled to Mecca and returned convinced that the Nation of Islam had misled its followers. Malcolm converted to orthodox Islam and tried to found an alternative group, but was assassinated soon after. Louis Farrakhan leads a famous splinter group which has branched off from the original Nation of Islam. Orthodox Muslims insist that the racially-based teachings of the Nation of Islam are abhorrent to the traditional believer.

Why do people who convert to Islam change their names?
Elijah Muhammad, leader of the “Nation of Islam” (see above) urged his members to take Islamic names partly to reject the family names imposed on them during slavery times. The “X” in names like “Malcolm X” stands for the unknown original African name of the family from which modern a modern African-American is descended.

Why were Muslims not allowed to drink wine?
The Qur’an regards the drinking of alcoholic beverages as sinful. In Sura 4, verse 43, it says that an intoxicated person has a “befogged mind” which does not permit of proper prayer. Wine-drinking is associated with gambling as a vice and totally prohibited in Sura 5, verses 90-91.

Did Muslim architecture influence the architecture in Russia? The Pointed domes in Iran look similar to the domes in Russia.
Yes indeed. The form of Orthodox Christianity which entered Russia a thousand years ago was profoundly influenced in its architectural style by Turkish traditions. The “onion-shaped” dome is common to both Middle Eastern Mosques and Russian Orthodox churches. Interestingly, such domes also occur on Catholic churches in southern Germany, where Muslim influence was strong during the Renaissance.

Could you explain more about the animals with red lines on their necks?
I haven’t been able to find any examples on the Web, but I’ve seen images of deer grazing, for interest, with a thin red line indicating that they have actually been beheaded, the artist hoping that this will avoid breaking the prohibition against depicting living beings in art.

I would like to read some more of the love poetry.
You’ll find Sufi love poetry at “Traveling the Path of Love,” but of course these are allegories with religious meanings. You can read more about Layla and Majnun in my study guide to the work. WSU doesn’t own a copy of the Gelpke translation which those notes refer to, but there is a copy of Colin Turner’s translation.

Questions about China

I would like to know more about the Great Wall of China and why it was constructed.
The Great Wall is the single greatest construction project ever carried out before this century. It runs about 4,500 miles from east to west in northern China. There had been earlier defensive walls, but the Wall became Great when in the late 3rd century BCE the First Emperor connected several of them and extended the whole considerably in an attempt to keep maurauding nomads and invaders out of China. Scholars disagree about how well it worked.

The pieces tourists visit near Beijing are considerably later than the First Emperor’s day.

It is often said that it is the only human-made object visible from space (or, more dramatically, from the moon): but this is dubious, since although it is very long, it is not very wide. A site explaining that this is a myth.

I would like further explanation of the arts–like the writing. I think it’s so interesting because it’s foreign.
Chinese writing is famous for its beauty, and the Chinese themselves have long regarded calligraphy as an important art. Ideally, the characters should be beautifully formed by hand in a combination of spontaneity and craft. Calligraphers must practice long and hard to achieve the beautiful look of classic writing.

It is tempting to regard Chinese characters as a series of little pictures, and many introductions to the subject overstress the pictorial aspect. Just as there are many different type faces on a modern Western computer, there are many ways to write the same characters. For examples, see “China the Beautiful.”

I noticed that the Chinese had pillar structures in their architecture. Did they get these ideas from Egypt?
Post-and-lintel construction (the “posts” are the pillars) is pretty universal, and probably goes back before the Egyptians. It’s the particular form of the Egyptian temple pillars, shaped like tree trunks, that inspired the Greeks. I suspect the Chinese developed their own construction styles separately but I don’t really know.

I would like to know more about Confucius’ ideas of order.
You’ll find some good information at

I was wondering if you could explain more about the mandate of Heaven.
A mandate can be understood as a sort of vote of confidence. When the people overwhelmingly elect and official, he is said to have their “mandate.” The Chinese thought of their rulers as being given their mandates not by democratic elections, but by the will of the Gods in Heaven. That’s what the “Mandate of Heaven” means–these rulers deserve to have power because the Gods have chosen them and support them. So far, this all sounds like the Western concept of the Divine Right of Kings. What makes the Chinese version different is that they acknowledged than Heaven could remove its mandate when the ruler was not living up to proper Confucian standards. Such a concept is handy if you are a rebel who has just overthrown the previous government: you can claim that the defeated rulers had lost the mandate of Heaven, and it has now passed to you. No other nation had so prominently built into its political concepts a concept that explained how the government could be overturned without the result being mere chaos. Centuries might pass, but eventually everyone expected that a dynasty would grow corrupt and lose the mandate of Heaven.

During Song Dynasty exams, could the poor take them to become officials?
Theoretically yes, and there were at times rather poor scholars; but truly impoverished peasants had no access to education or the leisure necessary to take the exams.

Why weren’t the Chinese interested in anything European? Why is it that they only wanted European money?
Until the mid-17th century, China was the leading nation of the world. It had the most advanced technology, the mostly highly developed economy, some of the world’s most beautiful and sophisticated art and literature. It was a huge nation, very self-sufficient. While China was at its height, Europe was in a relatively crude stage of development. They got into the habit of thinking of themselves as literally the center of the world and lost interest in outside matters–justifiably–because nothing they had seen of Europeans impressed them very much.

Since there was tension between Confucianism and Buddhism, have there ever been religious wars fought amongst the two sides? If so, what were some major results?
The early T’ang emperors were very strong Buddhists, yet tolerant of Confucianism. However, in several periods Confucian governments persecuted Buddhists. It didn’t come to war because Buddhists were never an organized military force. Buddhists died for their faith, but they didn’t kill for it.

What does the weird sitting-leg arrangements do for those who meditate (Buddhism)? What’s the point of doing that?
Keep in mind that in the cultures where Buddhism originated and flourished, people usually sat on the ground, not on chairs. The “lotus posture” you see in a lot of images is not particularly weird by their standards. It became tradition to have various aspects of the Buddha depicted as sitting in various postures, simply for identification. Some meditation disciplines stress certain bodily postures to promote certain kinds of awareness in the mediator.

How similar is daily life in ancient China like that of today?
Not very similar at all. China went through a series of profound revolutions starting in the middle of this century, and is now developing into a major capitalist nation, paradoxically under the guidance of the Communist Party. There is probably far more change than continuity. But China was remarkably stable until this century.

I would like to know more about the Chinese family structure. What was it like in the household?
The structure was much like that of many cultures: oldest male at the head, younger males under him, women subordinated to men. Women left home and joined the extended families of their husbands, subservient to everyone older than themselves, especially to the eldest wife. Rich men often had several wives; poor men often had none. To get some idea of what it was like to live in a traditional wealthy home, you could watch the great movie Raise the Red Lantern, set early in this century but reflecting traditional life. It shows how hard polygamy was on women. (Extra credit available.)

If Chinese were so into nature, why did they kill all (most all) their tigers?
They only got around to slaughtering most of the tigers in this century. Many Chinese men have been obsessed with the quest for drugs to increase potency, and several rare animal species have suffered as a result. I’ve always thought the best thing environmentalists could do in China would be to promote Viagra. Surely it couldn’t be more expensive than tiger bones and bear gall bladders–the current favorites.

Questions about India, Hinduism, & Buddhism

Answers to questions about Hinduism


Are Hindus frowned upon if they do not meditate often, or does the concept of “puja” compensate for this?
Meditation is only one form of puja, by no means mandatory. Many Hindus never meditate. You meditate because you feel it is beneficial to you, not because it is required. People who didn’t live with you would have no way of knowing whether you meditate or not, so it’s not a matter of social pressure.

Why are gods and goddesses in artwork depicted as “scary” but not thought of?
If you needed a bodyguard to fight off bullies for you, you’d pick somebody scary-looking, right? That’s what Kali/Durga is like. Note that the Christian God can also be “scary”–the book of Revelation portrays him in some pretty frightening ways. People often prefer to worship gods who have a great deal of power, even if that power is viewed as dangerous.

Taj Mahal Temple, how was it built, when, why, etc.?
Technically the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum, or elaborate tomb, rather than a temple, built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (reigned 1628-58) in the memory of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, in the 17th century, after the period covered by our course (which is why I didn’t show you a picture of it). Although we think of it as typically Indian, it is typically Mughal architecture, influenced strongly by Islamic Persian architecture and bears little resemblance to indigenous Indian Hindu temples. You can learn more about it on the “My India” site.

What is the point of building waist-high temples?
It’s an act of devotion on the part of someone who can’t afford a full-scale building, or for a very minor god who doesn’t qualify for one. You don’t have to be able to enter a temple to worship at it.

Are Indians then strict vegetarians? How do they feel about eating other animals if cows are so respected?
About 20 percent of Indians are vegetarians, including all Jains. It is common enough in India so that on menus the meat selections are often labelled “non-veg.” I have known vegetarian women married to meat-eating husbands. I have no idea how common this pattern is.

Are these the people that have the stones in their forehead? If so did they do it way back when?
If you’re thinking of Hindu gods with stones in their foreheads, that’s a Western stereotype perpetuated by hundreds of adventure stories. Many Indians mark their foreheads with a dot of paint either for religious or caste reasons or just because they find it attractive. Sculptures reflect the same fashion. Rarely a jewel might be substituted for the paint dot, but I’ve never seen one.

Who was the most significant religious leader in the history of India? Who brought religion to India?
Religion in India to too ancient and diverse in its origins to be said to have had a “founder.” There’s no one like Moses or Jesus or Muhammed identifiable in relationship to Hinduism. India gave birth to religions which were exported elsewhere. I suppose the Buddha is the most significant religious leader in terms of his world influence, but in the long run Buddhism dwindled to a minor faith in India.

Why do only reincarnated gods have strange skin colors?
Vishnu and his avatars, particularly Krishna, are often shown with blue skin to suggest their identity. But Kali is also often shown with dark skin. And demons come in all sorts of colors, but they aren’t gods, strictly speaking.

Are there any female gods in Hinduism?
Each major god has a female consort. I showed you images of Vishnu with Lakshmi and Shiva with Parvati. There are a number of powerful demon-fighting goddesses often overlapping with each other called “Kali,” “Durga,” and other names. Saraswati is also a popular goddess who is regarded as the spouse of Brahma. Click here for more information.

Are women and men treated as equals?
From a Western point of view Hinduism discriminates strongly in favor of men and against women. Gender roles are strictly defined. However, it’s worth noting that India has had a female head of state (Indira Gandhi) and that the head of the Congress Party right now is her daughter-in-law. There are many female professionals in India, but generally the average woman in India has far fewer opportunities and protections than the average woman in the U.S. or Europe.

Is the Indian culture known to like the female form?
If this refers to the female body, voluptuous female figures are common in Hindu religious sculpture, often featured on the facades of temples. Unlike the Greeks, ancient Indian sculpture revealed male and female figures equally. However, modern Indians are relatively modest, and until recently films were extremely prudish in what they could show, with lots of “wet sari” scenes being as revealing as they got.

Why are the women represented with either poverty or sex? What are they trying to say with that?
In all cultures heterosexual men have tended to identify women with sexuality, but I showed you pictures of several of the consorts of the gods who are certainly not associated with poverty, nor are they particularly sexy. Sita, Rama’s consort, is a classic example. She is the stereotype of the faithful wife.

What are the major roles of the wife?
This is a huge subject. India has a reputation in the West of being rather hard on women, with wives being strictly subordinate; but within the large extended traditional family, older wives exercise a great deal of power and authority over other family members, particularly younger wives. For a detailed portrait of this sort of family relationship, see the documentary film Dadi and Her Family (you can get extra credit for watching it). This power lapses, however, with the death of their husbands. Few cultures treat widows more poorly than does the Indian one, which helps to explain why many women were willing to commit sati on their husbands’ funeral pyres in the past (the practice has been outlawed for over a century and a half). Modern Indian women are often highly assertive, with Indira Gandhi being the outstanding example of a powerful woman in modern times. She derived her fame from being the daughter of India’s first premier rather than from her marriage. Modern upper class Indian families often feel it is important for their daughters to be well educated to attract a good husband. It is not uncommon for an MA degree to feature in matrimonial ads. On the other hand, thousands of women are killed annually in India by greedy families of grooms who are disappointed by the amount of dowry they have received from the bride’s family. This practice is strictly a crime, has no religious basis, and is not connected with sati. For a site dealing with many issues relating to Indian women, see Women of India.

Why are Hindus allowed to sacrifice animals? I’m not sure I understand it because in their culture they have souls just like people.
In fact, Hindus rarely sacrifice animals. Most sacrifices involve colored powders, incense sticks, flowers, fruit, etc. But occasional animal sacrifices are justifiable just as war is: this life is both illusory and impermanent. The goat sacrificed at the temple of Durga in Calcutta while I was there was supposed to have fulfilled his dharma by this death and go on to a better existence in the next life. Can Hindus first be born as Brahmins or do they have to start at the bottom?
It’s difficult to know where “the start” is. Human beings can’t think back that far. All beings alive today have been continuously reborn for many millennia. I don’t know whether there were “original Brahmins” at the origin of the world or not.

Can untouchables be reborn?
Yes indeed. The whole system of untouchability rests on the belief in reincarnation. Untouchables were assured that their lowly status had been earned through bad karma from previous lives but that if they followed their untouchable dharma in this life they would be able to escape it in the next.

If everyone spends their lives trying to become a Brahmin, eventually wouldn’t there begin to be large number of Brahmins?
Remember that pious Brahmins who achieve Moksha are continually being removed from the system, and former grasshoppers and such are being reborn as Vaishyas.

How come there is so many rich and so many poor and not so many in the middle class?
You might be surprised to learn how polarized American society is in this regard; but it’s true that the vast bulk of Indians are and always have been poor. This was also true of almost all ancient cultures. In recent times a combination of overpopulation, land-shortage, and mismanagement of the economy by anti-development governments have contributed to this poverty. However, India is developing strikingly at present–not as furiously as China, but still quite impressively. There is a very sizable middle class.

If people are reborn over and over again then are new people (new souls/spirits) crated? If not, then how is it that the world population is growing?
Only in recent times has the world population grown at a fast enough rate to be noticeable. For long periods it has hardly grown at all, so this sort of question just didn’t come up. Remember that all living beings, including insects, are involved in the cycle of rebirth, so the total number of human beings alive isn’t the only relevant statistic. Ultimately all atman is one. Individual souls are a temporary illusion created out of a single unity–the brahman. It is infinite and inexhaustible.

Are the kings and rulers worshiped and close to Moksha?
Occasionally a ruler has been regarded as a god, but less so than in many other cultures. Hinduism is unique is granting a higher status to the priesthood (the Brahmins) than to the warrior-kings (Kshatriyas). It is the duty of kings to defend and protect Brahmins, but they are seldom Brahmins themselves.

Why do you sometimes see Hari Krishna followers in the airport and why do they give you flowers and try to give you books? Maybe just like any other religion looking for converts?
These are followers of the modern International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). Yes, this is their missionary activity, similar to the way that Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses go door-to-door seeking converts. Airports are sheltered public spaces where they can encounter a wide variety of people. They have been banned from many of them, however; and a while back decided for a while to abandon this approach since they were alienating more people than they attracted, but I’ve noticed them back at it recently.

If Indians are Aryans, why are some of them so dark?
Indians use the term “Aryan” to label certain lighter-skinned Indians whose ancestors are now often thought to have been barbarians who emigrated into India millennia ago from Central Asia and conquered the darker Indians, often called “Dravidians” in contrast. Dravidians are supposed to have been the original inhabitants of the subcontinent (and probably the inventors for the Indus culture). All this is very controversial in modern India, with many groups seeking to deny the whole theory of the Aryan invasion. The two groups have obviously intermarried over time and all sorts of shades occur, with the darker skins prevailing more as you move south. Hitler’s use of “Aryan” to mean blonde Nordic types was a twisted variation on this Indian nomenclature.

Was there any form of racism or discrimination in the Indian culture since some were darker than others? Was darker skin seen as being less or inferior?
The concept of caste generally overrides any concept of “race” as such, but there is a traditional discrimination in favor of the light-skinned Aryans over the dark-skinned Dravidians. But this is complicated by geography: Southern Indians tend on average to be much darker than northern ones. In matrimonial ads women are often described as having a “wheatish” complexion–light brown–and there is still a lot of prejudice against dark skin. Movie stars and models almost invariably have light skin. But India is not neatly divided into “black” and “white.” There is a host of fine distinctions, only some of them related skin color; but color is definitely one basis for discrimination.

Why do some Indians wear turbans?
Most turban-wearing Indians are Sikhs, followers of a traditional religion which developed in the fifth century BCE. They are an important minority in modern India. The men are not supposed to cut their hair, so they bind it up in a turban. They are also not supposed to trim their beards, and many of them wear a sort of net “beard bra” as well to keep it out of the way.

What is the difference between Hindus and Indians?
Some Hindus would argue that there is no difference; but in fact people whose origin is India as defined geographically by the Indus River and the Himalayas in the north and by the seas in the other directions can be called Indians (even after they emigrate), but only those who adhere to Hindu religious practices are Hindus. Many Indians are Muslims, Sikhs, Parsees, Jains, Buddhists, Christians, and followers of other faiths. There are even Indian Jews.

What was the main form of entertainment in India?
I would say story-telling, mostly based on Hindu tales like the Ramayana. But song and dance have always been very popular too. In modern India the overwhelmingly most popular form of entertainment are the splashy musical films churned out in huge quantity by the Bombay film industry (“Bollywood”).

Did the Greek theater ever influence Indians’ entertainment?
The origins or Indian theater are much more obscure than those of Greek theater. Some Indians claim their theatrical tradition to be the oldest in the world, but the earliest evidence we have dates from almost a thousand years after its Greek origins. It probably evolved separately, since Greek drama had been long forgotten at that time and had to be reinvented even in Europe in the Middle Ages.

How long has India been a democracy?
Since 1947.

The deities in the Hindu religion are very different than Western deities. Is there any reason that they had such fantastic forms?
They’re not so much more fantastic than–say–the Egyptian gods; but their attributes are widely understood as expressing various spiritual truths. Almost everything about their appearance is symbolic. You can tell a lot about a god’s function and powers by looking at its image.

Why are cows so sacred?
Nobody knows when or how cow veneration began, but it is as ancient as the earliest accounts we have of India. It may have derived from the the heavy dependency of poor people on cattle to work their fields, provide milk products for a protein-poor diet, and provide cow dung for cooking fuel (still an important source of fuel today). Killing the family cow to eat it would be an act of desperation which would ultimately doom a family worse starvation from the loss of its services and products, so perhaps this sort of marginal cattle-keeping inspired veneration for the cow. There are laws against killing cows in modern India, but there have been recent reports of widespread butchery to supply the leather export market. If you killed one with your car you would probably be in big trouble–but more from a mob forming than from the police. It is Hindus rather than Buddhists who especially venerate cows, though most Indian Buddhists would certainly do so, and are often vegetarians. Cow-veneration did not travel to other countries with Buddhism, however.

What do they cook with cow dung, and how do they use it?
The dung is patted by hand into disks and sun-dried. Then the dried product is crumbled and lit with straw. It is used to cook just about everything a poor family eats: rice, flat breads, lentil dishes, etc. Richer people can afford better fuel, but at dinner time, the air in many parts of India is thick with burning dung.

Did they sacrifice the cows along with the other animals?
No. As far as we can trace it back, Hindus have venerated cows and regarded killing them as like murder. The eating of beef is viewed with horror by most Hindus, though Muslims often eat it.

Is there an overproduction of cattle because they never kill them?
Many modern Indians feel there are too many cows. There have actually been attempts to use birth control on them. These cows are not wild, and their reproduction is largely controlled by the farmers who raise them.

Did they have a problem with alligators in the Ganges River eating people while they bathe?
Alligators are a Western Hemisphere species, but I don’t believe crocodiles inhabit Indian rivers. However, turtles thrive on imperfectly created remains thrown into the river at Varanasi. I don’t know whether they ever bite living people. Most animals would be frightened away by the vigorous splashing of the bathers at the ghats.

The temples carved in the side of mountains or caves. Who occupied and cared for them? Could regular travelers stop by and stay there?
Most monasteries like these were in remote locations where travelers seldom came before modern times. I believe that the occasional traveler could probably find shelter there.

In what ways did ancient India shape a man like Gandhi?
Gandhi derived most of his philosophy from traditional Hindu and Buddhists concepts, and was especially interested in the pacifism of Ashoka. But he was a radical in choosing to reject caste, urging the remarriage of widows, and preaching nonviolence. For more on his philosophy, read his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. In it he talks about the religious influences on his life.

How do people in the Hindu religion know when they reach moksha?
It is very difficult to know when you are ready to enter moksha. Prolonged meditation and ascetic practices are involved, as well as consulting with spiritual advisors. But if you were actually to enter moksha you would simultaneously cease to exist as a separate entity. You would become one with the brahman.

Does the religion of India affect their government?
Heavily. The founders of modern India tried to get all religions to cooperate in forming a secular state, with the Hindu liberation leader Gandhi drawing on Buddhist traditions and trying to get Hindus and Muslims to get along, and even occasionally quoting from Christian scriptures. However, Muslim leaders insisted on forming their own nation, Pakistan; and ever since Indian politics have been marked by recurrent animosity between Muslims and Hindus, with Sikhs also becoming combative at times. Currently, fanatical Hindu nationalism is at a peak in India; and liberal Indians worry about the resultant religious conflicts holding back the country’s development.

How long was the Arthasastra used?
To be truthful, we don’t know whether it was ever used. It is more important as a reflection of the values of a certain era than as an effective body of law. It may have been largely theoretical.

I saw some images of Gods in Indian paintings. These gods have blue skin color; is this color a symbol of the sky, heaven?
“Krishna” literally means “black” and he is usually depicted as being a very dark blue or black. He is often called “the dark lord.” It is true that some modern portraits show him in a brighter shade of blue and some modern interpreters have tried to connect this with the sky; but that is not traditional. “Blue-black” is much more traditional. A story tells how a vile demon tried to poison him with her breast, but he sucked her dry–to death–without damaging himself in anyway except that her poisoned milk turned him permanently blue. It is dubious that this is the original source of his blueness, however, since Vishnu and Rama are also blue.

I was unclear on what exactly Maya was. I know that it is what we fight against, but I don’t understand the meaning, purpose, etc.
Maya is simply the physical world we know it, with all its distractions, desires, and pains. The Hindu tries to see beyond the physical world to the spiritual which lies behind it and is ultimately considered more “real.” “Maya” is literally “illusion.” The world you ordinarily move in is considered an illusion. But Maya is also the illusion that your atman constitutes a separate “self.” When you overcome the illusion of Maya you will realize your oneness with the Brahman.

What is dharma?
Duiker refers to dharma as a set of laws regulating all individuals and classes in society, and calls it “the law.” Another way to view dharma is as “duty.” Each caste, gender, and stage in life has its own specific dharma, its own list of rules to obey and ideals to strive for. What is good for a Brahmin to do is not always what is good for a Kshatriya to do, and what is good for a young man to do is not always what is good for an old man to do. “Duty” is good enough for the purposes of this class, provided you understand that what your duty is depends on your caste; it is not universal.

I felt you should have talked some more on dharma and karma.
It’s really pretty simple: how well you perform your dharma (duty) determines your karma (fate). If you fulfill your dharma well, your karma will give you a good reincarnation in the next life; if you fail to perform your dharma, you will earn a bad karma and have a bad reincarnation in your next life. Hindus often blame their sufferings on bad karma earned in earlier incarnations.

Could you clarify about karma: I thought it was a good thing, but you said they have to avoid it so I’m a little confused now.
It’s reincarnation one should seek to avoid, not karma. Karma is just the inevitable result of living. You can’t avoid it. But if your karma is good enough, you may achieve moksha and be able to avoid reincarnation.

How do Hindus know their dharma; is it written down, like laws or something?
There are over 5,000 books in Sanskrit which embody various versions of the law of dharma, the most famous of which is the Laws of Manu. But you don’t have to study the law to learn your caste dharma, because you will have the same dharma as your parents and relatives, and they will tell you about it. The rules are conveyed by oral means; but sometimes you have to consult a Brahmin priest for the finer details. You can read more on this subject at

I am having trouble being confused by dharma and karma because they rhyme.
Here’s one way to remember the distinction. “Dharma” and “duty” both start with “D.” Your karma determines where you will go in the next life, and your car will take your to your next destination. Does that help?

What is “Brahman”?
This is actually a fairly simple concept, but one that Westerners often have difficulty grasping because it seems so alien to them. “Brahma” is the god who personifies “Brahman,” but he is not “Brahman.” Duiker calls Brahman the “world-soul,” which is a way of saying that there is one huge field of spirituality into which all individuals–even gods–eventually merge. It is the spiritual reality beyond all the illusions of “Maya.” It has something in common with the Western Heaven, but in Hinduism you don’t “go to Brahman,” you become one with Brahaman, blend with it, unite with it. Your atman is ultimately Brahman.

If you have bad karma, does that affect what you would come back as in the next life?
Yes indeed. You earn good karma by performing your dharma well, and can be reincarnated as a higher being, or acquire bad karma through bad behavior and come back as a lower being, even an animal.

Please go back over the concepts of samsara, moksha, and puja.
Samsara is simply the great wheel of reincarnation, the constant cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, from which Hindus seek to escape. Moksha is the only form of escape: merging with the brahman and ceasing to be reborn. It might loosely be called the Hindu form of “salvation.” See the next question for puja.

What is puja, exactly?
You can think of it as roughly equivalent to “worship,” but puja can take many forms: going on pilgrimages to sacred sites, meditating, praying, visiting temples, performing various rituals, etc. It is a broad term enveloping almost all the ceremonial practices of Hinduism.

I’m confused about what moksha is exactly besides stepping off the wheel of samsara. What is it supposed to achieve exactly?
“Moksha” means “release,” and signifies the release from all suffering and unity with the divine spirit which underlies all creation. It is naturally a very difficult concept for ordinary humans to grasp, and there are many different ways it is explained. Look for further references to “moksha” below to see other contexts in which it is important.

The one thing I don’t understand is the series of animals that you can be reincarnated as according to your karma.
Hindus believe all living beings are ultimately one. Not only humans have atman. If you earn bad karma, you may be reborn as a lower animal and have to work your way back up through one or more reincarnations to become human again. Some Hindus (especially many Brahmins) are vegetarians partly because of this veneration for all life as one.

I don’t understand how a spider can obtain bad karma or what the dharma would be for a spider or any other animal.
I couldn’t say specifically in the case of a spider, but a good water buffalo would be, for instance, one that obeys its master and plows well, and a bad one would be one that gored its master. But you’d have to be one to really know.

If reincarnation isn’t really that good of a thing because you haven’t done good enough and the true goal is to have moksha, but only brahmin men can do it, then why are people trying to have good karma to reincarnate themselves?
In Hinduism no one tries to be reincarnated: it just happens, to everyone–to all living beings. The immediate goal is to be reincarnated with a better karma and improve your spiritual status in your next life; the ultimate goal is to reach the highest status from which you can achieve moksha and cease being reborn. Even if Brahmin status is a long way off for your personally, it only makes sense to strive toward it in each life. Some Hindus also believe that one can achieve Brahmin status within a single life, and for them you do not need to be born a Brahmin to do so. Hindus believe that ultimately everyone will make it; but they have to try to succeed.

How does one know whether they have more “good” karma than “bad” karma? Is there any specific signs besides caste?
People tend to blame any misfortunes or sufferings on bad karma. It is generally considered a bad idea to congratulate yourself on any evidence of good karma, but obviously many wealthy, powerful people felt justified in their status by the feeling that they had earned it in a previous life.

How is reincarnation so important, not only to Hinduism, but to other world-wide religions?
Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism are the only big world-wide religions I know of that stress reincarnation. I was contrasting Hindu ideas on rebirth with Judeo-Christian-Islamic ideas of being saved in heaven. Christians use the metaphor of rebirth as a symbol for salvation (“born-again” Christians, etc.), but they don’t mean the same thing by the expression “to be reborn” as Hindus do.

Are children resurrected since they’re reincarnated people?
Resurrection is a Jewish/Christian/Muslim belief, not a Hindu one. But a child who dies is certainly believed to be reborn in the future.

What is the purpose of burning incense in Hindu culture?
Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians all burn incense to symbolize their love for the Divine. The sweet smoke going up is a sort of prayer. Some argue the smell pleases the gods.

How is love connected to death?
What I said was that sex is connected to death. When you have sex with someone, you may beget a life. When that new life (the baby) begins, it is destined some day to die. So, to be born is to die. This much is also very traditionally Western. But in Hindusim, when you die, you are on your way to being reborn as a result of your new parents’ having sex. Hence, to die is to be reborn. This is why the images of Kali and Durga I showed you often connected sexuality with death. These images incorporate this cyclical understanding of the processes of life called samsara: the great wheel of death and rebirth:sex leads to life which leads to death which leads back around to sex and more life.

What was the name of the most sacred city (by the water where people go to live out their last days?
The city is called Varanasi by its inhabitants. The British contorted this into “Benares” or “Banaras.” The most ancient and sacred precinct within the city is called “Kashi.” The temples and ghats (steps) on the shore of the Ganges River are the site of the cremations of the dead and the worship of those who come to bathe in this most sacred of all Indian rivers. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It is the ideal of every devout Hindu to visit Varanasi at least once before death, though this is not considered mandatory in the way a visit to Mecca is mandatory for devout Muslims.

I am confused about the different gods, especially Brahma, Vishnu & Shiva.
That’s not surprising. The Hindus themselves have many different stories about their gods, and often the attributes of one god will be transferred to another. I will not expect you to have them all sorted out for this class, but here are some basics.

Brahma is the creator god who brings into being the original “stuff” on which Shiva operates. Four or five thousand years ago he was widely worshiped, and was incorporated eventually into a supreme trinity of Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu; but from the 7th century onward, his worship declined. It is characteristic of many religions, such as the ancient Greek form, that the creator of the physical universe is not considered immediately relevant to the concerns of human beings, and is widely ignored in worship. However, Brahma’s image must be present in all temples devoted to Shiva or Vishnu. His female consorts are Savitri and Sarasvati (associated with a river of that name), the latter a goddess today associated with learning and the arts. Her image is often placed in schools.In some views, Brahma is the form taken by the ultimate spiritual reality of the universe. When spelled with all lower-case letters “brahma” or “brahman” refers to this spiritual reality. In Hinduism gods are derivative, subordinate to an impersonal greater spiritual realm or state. In comparison to brahma in this sense, even the gods are less “real.”

Vishnu is known as the preserver of the world, the protector, the restorer of the moral order in the world known as dharma. He is known mainly through his avatars (incarnations) who intervene from time to time in history to combat particular threats,especially Rama and Krishna. Rama is the hero of the popular epic The Ramanaya, and Krishna is the colorful (literally–he’s often portrayed as having bright blue skin!) god who is the object of the love of the gopis (cowherds’ wives) in many erotic devotional hymns. He is the god who in the Baghavad Gita explains to Arjuna why he must not let his conscience hold him back from fighting in the vast war which is the main subject of the Mahabharata. Krishna is also a flute player and dancer, and Vishnu shares these characteristics. Vishnu and most of his incarnations are dark-skinned. His consort is Lakshmi, and she is reborn as his consort to each of his avatars.

Shiva (or “Siva”) is the most popular of all the gods. Image of Shiva Nataraja. He is both a destroyer and creator of the universe, a process that takes place in enormously long cycles of time (we’ve been for the past four thousand years in just the latter part of one of these cycles). His followers are known as “Shaivites.” Hindus often combine opposite qualities in a single deity, and Shiva’s fearsome and loving sides are carefully balanced in his portayals. He has a female consort, but she takes on different names and forms. Durga and Kali are fearsome demon-slaying women, adored because they protect their worshippers against such evil forces. Parvati is usually portrayed as beautiful and loving. They had two sons, Skanda (with six heads) and Ganesh (or Ganesha), whose head was struck off by Shiva in a moment of reckless rage and replaced with an elephant’s tusk. Ganesh is the remover of obstacles and is extremely popular, with his image often being placed at the entrance to businesses.

For a great many more details and pictures of gods, see

Is Vishnu the only god that’s reborn?
No, but Vishnu has the most famous avatars, usually counted as ten altogether. One of them, Krishna, is often seen as having his own avatars as well.

OK, so Indiana Jones talks about Shiva & Kali one movie. How are those stories/myths related to actual Hindu tradition?
The 19th century “Thugs” were a type of highway robber who thought of themselves as worshipers of Kali. They’ve been gone a long time, suppressed by the British in the first half of the 19th century. Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom resurrected this antique stereotype, offending many modern Indians.

Do Hindus know what they were in their past lives? Do they know where they came from?
Some claim to, but it is not generally considered important to know what your past lives were. It is the future you should focus on. The Western obsession with reconnecting with your previous incarnations is alien to Hinduism.

Under Samsara, if the cycle is complete and the world as a physical whole and spiritual whole is destroyed does this entail the destruction of the atman? If this is true than what about the atman? If the Brahman is destroyed via samsara then how is the world created?
Neither the atman nor the brahman is destroyed. Only the physical world and its manifestations are destroyed and recreated.

Who cremates the bodies? The family? Or is there someone who has this job?
The relatives prepare the body for burning, but the ritual is carried out by the eldest son of the dead person under the guidance of a trained Brahmin priest. Traditional Hindus believe that it is important to have as many sons as possible, partly to ensure that one will survive to carry out this essential task.

I want to learn more about the effects of religion on commerce in India.
The Hindu religion makes a place for a “householder” stage in life in which it is the duty of a man to support his family. Trade and commerce can be a good way of fulfilling one’s dharma if one belongs to the correct caste. Indians have been involved with the spice and silk trades for millennia.

I would like to know more about Sanskrit.
This language goes back at least 3800 years. The oldest preserved Hindu text, the Rig Veda, is written in Sanskrit. A classical form of the language was used for literary purposes from about 500 BCE to about 1000 CE, by authors such as Kalidasa. In his time (6th century CE?) it was a learned, courtly language. (The commoners in his plays speak in prakrit–a common tongue–rather than Sanskrit.) It is a very complex language with an enormous vocabulary. It is related to Latin and Greek–and through them–to most of the languages of Europe. The study of Sanskrit has given linguistic historians powerful tools for tracing the evolution of language.

What is their way of meditation?
There is a good list of meditation techniques on this site.

What is Hinduism’s belief about suicide?
Hinduism does not generally endorse suicide for men except in the extreme case of elderly brahmins who starve themselves to death in order to achieve moksha (liberation). For centuries, widows were also encouraged to allow themselves to be burned alive on the funeral pyres of their husbands (sati); but this has been outlawed for almost two centuries and is now extremely rare. The “Hinduism Today” site is generally a great source of information about the religion, and has a useful search engine.

If a husband was killed in battle, would the wife still be burned/killed?
Yes. Theoretically they were supposed to volunteer, but there is evidence that they were often forced to commit sati.

Why did the wives feel the need to burn themselves after their husbands’ deaths?
The short answer is “tradition.” But the tradition served several purposes: it made women very eager to keep their husbands alive and spare them from any life-threatening danger; it kept women strictly subordinate–no powerful rich widows; it reinforced the view that a married woman should be totally devoted to her husband and that life without him should be worthless.

Could you explain more about yoga?
There are many systems of yoga, all aimed at helping the practitioner be freed from entanglement in the illusory world of matter and achieve spiritual release. The process includes both mental and physical exercises. Click here for an overview of yoga.

A person can die on the way to Varanasi and still be saved in the river?
“Salvation” is a very Judeo-Christian/Islamic term which strictly speaking doesn’t apply to Hinduism; but the belief I described in class is that having one’s ashes washed into the Ganges at Varanasi gains one a good deal of karma and leads to a better rebirth. The ashes of some people who die before they can reach the city are shipped there to be molded into balls, blessed, and dissolved in the river. I had never heard of this particular practice before we encountered it on the ghats in Varanasi, so I don’t know how traditional it is or how many people believe in it.

The hardest concept to grasp would be how multiple gods merge into one god. How do Hindus believe in multiple gods and yet it is one god?
I compare this to the way Catholics pray to Saints, but do not worship them as ends in themselves, but only as symbols of their worship for God. Even quite simple, uneducated Hindus usually understand that the local popular god is not the ultimate reality. Brahman is behind and beyond all specific goes. One traditional custom is interesting. In many religious festivals an image is elaborately formed of mud and straw and then carefully painted. The final ceremony is the painting in of the eyeballs, at which point the image receives many acts of puja and is treated with great respect. But at the end of the festival, the image is dumped into the river to dissolve back into its component elements, to remind the worshipers that the image is not the god. Since Gods can have many avatars, one god can be just an aspect of another god. And since all gods are ultimately created, non-eternal beings ultimately derived from the same spiritual reality (brahman) which produces human beings and animals, all can be said ultimately to be one. If you still find this confusing, consider that Christians believe God is three and one at the same time.

Do Hindus have a main superior god that they all worship?
As in the case of questions about so many Hindu beliefs, the answer is yes and no. No because as a Hindu you may devote yourself to one god or many. They are all manifestations of the divine, and none is more “real” than another. But Hindus also recognize that there is a unified spiritual reality behind all the gods, and often speak quite comfortably of “God” in the singular to describe that spiritual reality, just as some ancient Greek philosophers did.

More about the marriage process.
Like marriages around the world (including Europe before about 1800) marriages were usually arranged by the parents. A marriage is not the coming together of two individuals, but the merger of two families, with the newlyweds expected to become part of the groom’s household. Therefore the elders of the two parental households expect to have a good deal to say about the choice of partner. A brief description of Hindu marriage customs is at Illustrated details from the ceremony are at One essay on contemporary Hindu marriage can be found here. By the way, whether “most Indian marriages” are now arranged or not seems to depend very much on who you ask. In general more traditional village people prefer arranged marriages, but so do many sophisticated Indians living abroad.

Are Hindus ever considered dead? They are constantly re-incarnated.
Hindus believe that one’s atman dwells in a spiritual plane in between rebirths, but this is not the same as being “dead.” When one achieves moksha, one is at one with the brahma and ceases to be reborn. Eventually all atmans will achieve this state. Hinduism lacks the sense of urgency of the Judeo-Christian/Islamic tradition in which there is only one chance at salvation and an end of the world which looms in the near future in which one’s choice is to spend the ensuing eternity in Heaven or Hell.

Is there a distinct difference between Buddhism & Hinduism or are they more alike than different?
A full exploration of this question would fill volumes. From a Western perspective they look pretty similar: both seek to explain suffering, regard the physical world as illusory, embrace the idea of reincarnation and preach seeking to avoid rebirth. The practitioners of both often practice meditation. But Buddhists use the term “Nirvana” to describe the merging of the individual spirit in the afterlife, whereas “Moksha” is the Hindu term for merging with the brahman. Buddhists don’t believe you need to be of high caste to achieve enlightenment–the caste system is not nearly so important for them.

I would like to know more about the differences between the Hindus and Muslims, like, how Hindus do not eat cows, but Muslims do. Are both religions totally against each other?
We will deal briefly with this topic in lecture 25, but for now it suffices to say that it is hard to imagine two religions more different from each other than Hinduism and Islam in some ways. It is no wonder that the two have been in conflict to varying degrees ever since the Arab traders arrived in India. Hindus worship many gods while Muslims are even more insistent on monotheism than Christians (though Hindus believe there is a single, unified god behind the multiplicity of gods). Hindus believe that the gods can take on many forms, both human and animal while Muslims deny that God ever takes on any physical form at all. Hindus accept the caste system as a part of the divine plan whereas Muslims argue for universal brotherhood (though in fact many Indian Muslims observe their own parallel caste system). In a single life, only a few people achieve moksha, but any Muslim may be saved. Hindus believe in reincarnation; Muslims do not. Many important Hindu rituals must be performed by a Brahmin priest, but Muslims have no priesthood: any believer can do all that is necessary to be saved. Hindus have a rich tradition of pictorial religious art; strict Muslims prohibit the pictorial depiction not only of God but of any living being. Hindus seldom aggressively try to convert unbelievers and some believe conversion to Hinduism is impossible; it is the duty of Muslims to attempt to convert unbelievers. Hindus believe that all religions provide a path toward universal truths; Islam claims to be the only true religion (though it recognizes a special status for Jews, Christians, and Parsees as “people of the book” who are monotheists). Hinduism has many sacred texts; Islam has one. Hinduism has many varied rituals, most of them optional; Islam has a few strictly defined, mandatory rituals. Hinduism has no single “founder” whose role can be compared to that of Muhammad in Islam (he did not “found” Islam as such, but was given the revelation which modern Muslims follow). There are certain patterns that they have in common: taboo foods (pork for Muslims, beef for Hindus), bathing before prayers, pilgrimages, and the importance of charity toward the poor. Neither has an ultimate final authority like the Catholic Pope who can decide definitively on issues of belief; scholars debate religious issues and are followed according to how they impress believers with their learning and piety. During long periods of time Muslims and Hindus lived relatively peacefully side by side in India, but they were bitterly divided during the struggle for independence from Great Britain (many Indians blame the English for having deliberately fostered enmity between the two groups to keep them disunited and weak), and in the last dozen years or so conflicts have exacerbated the tensions between them. India now has an officially pro-Hindu government which tends to encourage hostility to Muslims.

Are there any different religions that can be called Hindu, like Lutherans and Baptists are called Protestants?
First of all, Lutherans, Baptists, and other Protestants (and Catholics) all belong to the same religion: Christianity. Individual churches within Christianity are often called “denominations.” But yes, there is a huge number of different faiths within Hinduism. In fact, some would go so far as to say that Hinduism is less a religion than a loose label for a group of related religions. Certainly many different faiths have flowed together to contribute to its rich history. They are often defined by the particular god toward which worship is directed: Shiva or Vishnu, for instance. For a detailed discussion of some of the main groupings see “Popular Systems of Hindu Religious Thought.” It is worth noting that while a Lutheran is not also a Baptist, there is no contradiction between being simultaneously a Saivite and a Vishnavite. It is a hallmark of Hinduism that all faiths are ultimately one, no matter how devoutly you may follow your favorite variety.

Do Hindus not eat any specific animal besides cows?
Some Hindus are vegetarians (twenty to thirty percent in modern India, more in ancient times). Upper caste Hindus are more likely to be vegetarians, and southern Indians more than northern ones. Those who do eat beef are not prohibited from eating other meats. The most commonly eaten animals are chickens, goats, and sheep–and of course fish are widely eaten where they are available. Keep in mind that before the modern era most people all over the world rarely ate meat simply because they could not afford it.

Isn’t there McDonalds’ in India?
Yes, they serve veggie and goat burgers.

What is it when Buddha statues sip milk from teaspoons?
I haven’t heard of this. There were reports a while back about images of Hindu gods exuding milk, much as statues of the Virgin Mary are seen to “weep blood” in the west. Cow’s milk is of course a sacred fluid to Hindus.

What did they (the ancient Indian people) eat if they didn’t eat beef?
India has one of the world’s great cuisines, but the common diet of poor Indians has consisted for centuries mostly of rice, various flat breads made of wheat flour, and lentils of various kinds for protein, plus “curds” made from cow’s milk.

Do they name their cows? Bathe them?
I don’t know whether the cows are given personal names, but they are sometimes ritually washed and decorated.

What happened to the children if a wife threw herself on the fire?
Remember that sati is now illegal in India and has been very rare for over a century. However, since the traditional extended Indian family shared child-rearing duties widely; orphans would almost always be cared for by someone else in the family if the mother had died, for whatever reason.

What do Hindus believe happens to non-Hindus when they die?
They will be reborn repeatedly until as Hindus they are able to step off the wheel of samsara. Thus there is no particular urgency in gaining converts in Hinduism as there is in religions which believe in only one chance to be “saved.”

What is behind the war over Kashmir between India and Pakistan, especially since both have nukes?
This gets us into the modern era covered by Gen Ed 111, but the short answer is that the majority of the population of in the part of Kashmir now in the state of India is Muslim, and they would rather join Pakistan, whereas India rejects the idea of ceding any further territory. Some Kashmiris would like to have an independent state of their own. This is one of many conflicts that followed upon the partition of India into the modern states of India and Pakistan in 1947.

Why do we have religion in the first place?
This is of course not a question that could be answered short of a very long book or series of books; but it is good to remember that “religion” is just a concept that we use to label certain patterns of thought and behavior. When Muslims or Hindus or Jews say that their religion is a way of life, they mean it literally. Religion traditionally expressed the values and customs of cultures. Only with the rise of secularism in the European Enlightenment is religion fully separated out into a distinct sphere. In the more common sense of the word, religion offers explanations for mysteries, lends authority to moral and legal codes, consolation for suffering, and hope for life after death. One way to define “religion” would be simply to lump together all the ways in which a traditional culture deals with these issues and call that its religion. However, those who try to dissolve all human beliefs and behavior into religion are overreaching: religion as traditionally understood requires belief in a transcendent level of experience which goes beyond the physical world as science describes it. The passionate dedication of a communist or a free-trader to his or her ideals may be intense, but it is a misnomer to call either of these ideologies a “religion.”

What is the government of India? Do they have a king, a president, or even a queen?
When India was not colonized by either Muslim or British conquerors, it rarely possessed any political unity. There were dynasties like the Guptas (kings), but they generally did not last long or unite the majority of Indians under a single rule. Since 1947, India has been the world’s largest parliamentary democracy. The president is elected to a five-year term by an electoral college, but is mainly a ceremonial figure. The true executive is the prime minister, chosen by the majority party or coalition in Parliament. The only queen to rule over all of India was England’s Queen Victoria during the colonial period; but Indira Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi) succeeded her father Jawaharlal Nehru (after a brief period when India was governed by Lal Bahadur Shastri), who was the first prime minister after independence.

How come a lot of the Hindu words end with an “a”? Did it have to do with their language or religion? Or is it just coincidence?
Answer from Fritz Blackwell, History: in essence it is in the script (Devanagari) which Sanskrit uses: a short “a” is inherent in every letter (symbol), although it can be modified to indicate a long “a” (as in “father”) or any other vowel. This inherent “a” is lost in such languages as Marathi, Hindi, Nepali, even though they use the Devanagari script.

I was confused on the story of Mirabai. Why would anyone want to have their ash smeared on someone else?
This is mostly symbolic. Mirabai wants the essence of her body to mingle with the essence of the god Krishna as a symbol of their spiritual union. She is also drawing on the symbolism of the tradition of sati, in which a widow burns herself alive on her husband’s funeral pyre to be united with him in death. She is combining these two ideas: she will burn herself on a pyre before the death of her beloved as a way of uniting with him. She may also be thinking about love symbolically “burning her up.”

Is love-making a pleasureful experience or does it more signify birth of a child?
In traditional Hindu texts such as the Mahabharata, sexual pleasure is given a very high rank, so long as it is experienced within legitimate marital relationships. Hindu writers on sex emphasize women’s pleasure for more than do those of any other religion. However, there is also an anti-sexual, ascetic side to Hinduism which is associated with a later time of life, when sexual life is to be abandoned. But Hinduism lacks the attitude common in some Christian traditions of considering sex good only for the production of children. Sexual pleasure is definitely considered good for its own sake, and is a divine blessing. To a certain extent this is true in Islam as well.

What’s the meaning of “Karma Sutra?”
That’s Kama Sutra. Kama is the ancient Hindu god of love, and bears some striking similarities to Cupid: among other things he causes people to fall in love by shooting arrows at them. The Kama Sutra is a detailed treatise on different ways of making love which was written by Vatsyayna during the Gupta period. It has fascinated Westerners far more than Indians, for whom it has no particular authority. At least for the past several centuries, India has been a rather prudish culture which does not openly celebrate sexuality in the way its heritage of erotic literature and mythology might suggest. Indian film maker Mira Nair created a huge controversy when in 1997 she made a film called “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love” which featured R-rated lovemaking in an imaginary Indian past. Nair had to go to court in an effort to get her film shown in India (in censored form), though it was shown abroad without incident. Many Indians are sensitive about their reputation as a “sexy” culture since they view Europeans and Americans as far more prone to erotic experimentation and public expression than they. Westerners have a strong tendency to eroticize all foreign cultures in a way that the people in those cultures often find demeaning. All that said, you can read excerpts from the Kama Sutra; but if you object to explicit sexual depictions in either words or pictures you should avoid this site.

If I was to be a Hindu, could I dedicate my life to Kama Sutra and gain “Good Karma,” and rebirth my way to a priest and reach enlightenment?
The Kama Sutra is not really a religious text: it’s just a lovemaking manual. But there are varieties of Tantric Hinduism and Buddhism in which sexual exercises of various sorts are said to lead to enlightenment, and they have their followers in a few scattered places in India, but they are very unusual. Most Indians are rather prudish and shocked by the notion of sexual yoga. Tantrism, by the way, is not exclusively sexual. For more information on Tantrism from a scholarly perspective, see Shiva Shakti Mandalam: The Inner Wisdom of the Hindu Trantrik Tradition.

Does India still practice the same religious aspects today? Do they believe the same things in Hinduism as you are describing here?
India is a vast and populous country with many varied beliefs. Many Indians are not particularly religious. But millions of Hindus still worship the traditional gods in the traditional ways. Caste has been greatly deemphasized in India today (though it is still influential in some rural areas), but pilgrimages, fasting, meditation, puja, etc. are all still very common.

Why did the Beatles get so interested in Hindu religion?
Like many young people in the sixties, they were attracted to Eastern traditions of meditation, etc., seeing them as less confining than Western spiritual traditions. Their immediate contact was with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of the international Transcendental Meditation movement. They studied with him in 1968 at his ashram in Rishikesh, India. The tendency of Western hippies to identify meditation with psychedelic drugs was not, however, approved of by people like the Maharishi.

Is Hinduism a growing religion or is it in decline?
Although Hinduism spread to certain parts of Southeast Asia and Krishna Consciousness is prospering all over the world, it would be difficult to say that Hinduism in growing much internationally at present. However, India is undergoing a huge Hindu revival at present, with many people embracing the ancient faith with a fervor that is partly directed against the Muslim citizens of India.

Is it true that Shangri-La may have been found?
Shangri-la was a mythical Himalayan kingdom invented by James Hilton in his 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, and reflects very Western ideas of paradise: an isolated land where people live in pleasure, never age, and live forever. Nothing could be further removed from the Hindu idea of Brahman. Since Hilton just made the place up, it is difficult to imagine how it could have been “found”; but people are fond of describing various spots on earth they think are idyllic as Shangri-La.

On what basis do the Hindus believe that the world is older than the scientific community believes it is? How old do they think it is?
Abstract calculations involving various religious ideas provide the figures they use, which vary wildly. I can’t remember the specific figures I’ve seen; but they’re all pretty arbitrary by Western standards.

Many more questions about Hinduism are answered in an essay called “ How to Become a Hindu.” See also “Hinduism through Questions and Answers” and “Hindu Dharma.” A good discussion of the sacred literature of Hinduism is “Introduction to Hinduism.” Keep in mind that there is no “orthodox” Hinduism, and that what one Hindu believes another may reject. The most you can hope for is to find out what some, or many, Hindus believe. Also, most of these sources reflect contemporary Hindu thought and do not necessarily represent in every detail the common beliefs of Hindus hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Is there indifference between those who believe in Hinduism and Buddhism? Even though the religions are very similar do people get along with each other from the two religions?
Now there are so few Buddhists in India that the question seldome arises. However, in earlier times there were sometimes bitter arguments back and forth between Buddhists and Hindus. Hinduism eventually absorbed parts of Buddhism and largely replaced it in India.

Why did Buddhism grow in China compared to India now? Was their social structure more accepting of the philosophy?
In China there was no native religion of personal consolation and hope that competed with Buddhism. The Chinese people are not particularly religious, but Buddhism did flourish in times of trouble when people were not satisfied with Taoism or Confucianism, as we shall see later in the course.

What do the temples in India represent?
Most of them are just places for worship, like churches in the West. But a few are considered to mark the birthplace of a god or holy man.

What kind of housing/architecture did they have in the past?
Most Indians have lived in simple one-room mud-brick buildings like the ones I showed you in class in the photograph of a typical village. But richer people have lived in a wide variety of lavish buildings which you can find pictures of in many books on India.

What kind of weather do they get? Do they have to irrigate a lot?
India is a huge subcontinent with lots of variety, from snow-capped mountains, to steamy rain forests, to deserts, and a lot besides. But it has a generally tropical climate, with plenty of heat in most parts most of the year. A rainy monsoon season is a common feature of much of India, but in many places irrigation is also carried out.

I want to know what “Buddha” means.
The enlightened or awakened one.

Can anyone achieve Nirvana, even somebody that doesn’t believe in Buddhism?
Buddhism doesn’t have a creed that must be believed in like Christianity or Islam. It is more an attitude and a set of practices (like meditation) than prescribed beliefs. If you develop the right attitudes and behave well by Buddhist standards, you might be able to achive Nirvana. Buddhists refer to their “practice” rather than to their “faith.”

Why would Buddhists want to reach Nirvana if their souls just blow out like a candle afterwards?
Although the image of a candle blowing out is the standard one of achieving Nirvana, few Buddhists think of this state as mere annihilation. Most insist that Nirvana is not describable in human terms, but it is associated with spiritual union, a sense of boundless belonging embracing the entire universe and all living things.

Why are there so many varieties of Buddhism? There was only one Buddha, right?
Of course one could ask the same question about Christianity, but in fact the variety in Buddhisms does seem extreme. For one thing, the Buddha left no writings behind, so there are various accounts of his teachings. Buddhism evolved in the context of Hinduism, which encourages a multiplicity of beliefs. It also spread to many different cultures, embraced by people with different needs. Its generally tolerant outlook meant that there was no Buddhist Inquisition, Index, or College of Cardinals to restrict or direct belief. The fact that you can believe in millions of Buddhas (billions, actually, since some say that all humans are in some sense the Buddha) or in none and still be a Buddhist illustrates this fact.

If everyone became Buddhist and they depend on begging for a living, wouldn’t that destroy social-economic production? Or is it just Buddhist monks that must beg?
Just the monks. The farmers who feed them are supposed to benefit spiritually by supporting the monks.

How did the statue of Buddha evolve to what it is now: the “little bald fat guy”?
The Japanese paunchy figure often called a “Buddha” is actually Hotei (Chinese Pu-tai), and is a deity of good fortune. According to some beliefs, Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, will be incarnated in the form of Hotei, so that Hotei is often regarded as a Bodhisattva.

In Buddhism are there any women that are worshiped?
In many forms of Buddhism not even the Buddha himself is worshiped, but in most he and his various incarnations (Bodhisattvas) are. Some of them are female, one of the most famous being the Tara. For more information see “Female Buddha.” There is also Kuan Yin (Japanese Guanyin), the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, which became female in China. Such bodhisattvas are also sometimes depicted as male, or even as half-and-half (literally–one side of their bodies will be male, the other, female). Kuan Yin is especially associated with mercy, and is often compared with the Virgin Mary in Catholic tradition.

Where can I find more information about Buddhism, the religion?
There are many books in the library on the subject. Ask a librarian to help you. But here are a couple of good sites on the Web:

Buddhism 101 (for beginners)
Buddhist Studies WWW Virtual Library (for more advanced students)

Why did the sky-clad Jains put ash on their bodies when they are trying to be pure.
The ash symbolizes their unworldliness, unattachment to the body: as if they were pre-cremated. Certain Hindus do this as well (men only, by the way).

I would like to know their views on Christianity.
Many upper-class Indians prefer to send their children to missionary schools because they feel they get a superior education, but few of them become Christian. In recent years there have been some sensational cases of persecution and even murder of Christians in India, but generally there are too few Christians in the country to create an issue.

Questions about Christianity

Note: opinions about religion are naturally controversial. As with the comments above about Judaism, what follows is my survey of various results of modern scholarship with notes on what various more orthodox believers have believed on these issues. There is no claim here to absolute truth. Many of the answers below refer you to the excellent PBS series and Web site “From Jesus to Christ.” You can check out the whole series from MMS in the library. It’s VHS 18172 (four parts). Conservatives not prepared to grant the basic premises of modern Biblical scholarship and who take the Biblical text literally will not be persuaded by the arguments there and may well misunderstand the evidence being presented, but others will find it interesting. You can watch these films for extra credit, but to appreciate the whole series you need to view all four parts.

Where did Christianity first originate from and who created it?
Conservatives would say God created it by sending Jesus, his son, to earth around 6 or 7 BCE. Modern scholars often consider it a joint creation of Jesus, a radical Jew seeking to reform Judaism, and Paul, who developed his ideas into a separate religion. This whole topic is explored at length in “From Jesus to Christ.”

How did the views of the Christians become so different from others to begin with?
If you mean “different from other Jews,” the fact is that Jews were arguing passionately with each other about their faith during his lifetime. People like the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls had some pretty odd beliefs from the point of view of what we think of as orthodox Judaism. Jesus’ followers were one among many groups reinterpreting what their religion should mean. We can’t trace the process now because too much information has been lost; but clearly one major influence on the formation of Christian thought was the Roman-Jewish conflict of 66-70 CE, which made the Christians determined to distance themselves from the Jews the Romans seemed bent on destroying. They emphasized in every way they could the differences between themselves and other Jews.

Why is the Christian interpretation of the Bible and the Jewish interpretation so different?
Again, Jews themselves interpreted the Hebrew Bible in a host of different ways; but Christians went beyond them by taking passages out of context to justify their view of Jesus as a suffering divine savior who died to redeem mankind–a concept totally alien to Jewish thought. Christians argue that Jews are blind to the meaning of their own writings; Jews consider the Christian interpretations gross distortions. You can study this question best in the context of a neutral history of the Bible like Stephen L. Harris’ Understanding the Bible, the textbook we use in English/Humanities 335.

In the Annunciation you showed us in class, the angel was male. Wy couldn’t the angel be female?
Because they came from male-dominated societies that tended to regard God as male, both Jews and Christians have traditionally thought and written about angels as male. All the angels who are named in the Bible have male names. In the 19th century artists began to depict female angels in a rather sentimental fashion, particularly as guardian angels watching over children; but that’s a modern innovation.

How did Christianity take hold in Rome as capital?
Slowly. Many scholars estimate that when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Rome in the 4th century, perhaps 10 percent of Romans were Christians. If you mean, why did it finally succeed? this is a much-debated issue with no certain answers. The PBS site “From Jesus to Christ” has a lot of good information on this at Its strongest rival, Mithraism, was crippled by excluding women. Its message of universal salvation appealed to many who felt oppressed or outcaste in Roman society. Its promise of eternal life appealed to the same people who admired various mystery religions for the same reason, but it may have seemed simpler and more approachable. As the political world fell apart, the individual salvation of Christianity provided some comfort for people feeling adrift in a changing, dangerous world.

I would like to know more about how it affected the world.
This is a huge topic. As you study world (and especially European) history, it’s impossible to avoid noticing the influence of Christianity in various forms. But the influences it has had are not always those its followers would have hoped for. It did not make Christian nations noticeably more peaceful, loving, generous, forgiving or unmaterialistic than non-Christian nations, for instance. But Christian ideas shaped history in many ways. For instance, Queen Isabella of Spain financed Columbus’ expeditions partly because she was looking for a way to raise money to finance a crusade to defeat Islam: one of her major goals in life. She hoped the new trade route to Asia would create profits which could be applied to this purpose.

What is the suffering servant?
There are four passages in Isaiah known as “Suffering Servant Songs” by modern scholars. They are generally interpreted by modern scholars as allegories of the suffering Jewish people themselves whose suffering in the Babylonian captivity is presented as having paid for their sins and bought their redemption. Isaiah specifically has God address the Jews as “my Servant.” He also calls the Persian leader Cyrus “my Servant.” In contrast, Christians consider these passages prophecies of Jesus Christ, redeeming the world through his suffering and death. You’ll find them at Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-11; and 52:13-12. The last one is considered especially important by Christians because it says of the servant “he was pierced through for our faults”–which they consider a prophecy of the crucifixion (clearly the gospel writers agreed with this view). Jewish and other interpreters note however that 1) the passage is in the past tense and does not seem to suggest anywhere a description of future suffering, 2) there are many ways to be “pierced” which don’t involve crucifixion: stabbing with a sword, spear, or arrow, for instance; 3) he also said to have been “crushed” though it is affirmed in the Christian Scriptures that not a single bone of Jesus’ body was broken; and 4) the Servant is said to have remained silent (“never opening his mouth”) whereas Jesus, though sometimes reluctant to speak during his trial, did in fact speak. Historically, Jews have not considered the Servant to be identifiable with the predicted Messiah. The Jewish Messiah is supposed to be triumphant, not suffering, and he is not supposed to die.

What are other religions’ views on Christianity? Do they look down on or mock Christianity?
We now live in an era in which religious leaders of various faiths try to respect each other, but that has not always been the case. Jews have had reason to fear and resent Christian, but have usually been cautious in their remarks simply because they were the threatened minority, and any outspoken criticism would have earned them terrible punishment. Muslims respect Christianity as a flawed, partial version of the true faith, but criticise it; and Christians are considered “People of the Book”–having a sacred text worthy of respect. Hindus believe that Christians are just going through a phase and will some day be reborn as good Hindus. Buddhists are willing to go along with just about anybody. Generally speaking, other religions have been more respectful of Christianity than Christianity has been of other religions.

There has been a lot of archaeology focused on finding manuscripts of the gospels. I was wondering where I might find information about the topic?
The PBS site has some good information on Christian archaeological evidence at, but little of it has to do with gospel manuscripts. You’ll find more relevant information at

What are the conflicts between Christianity and Evolution?
Many Christians accept the general theory of evolution. Even the Catholic Church now teaches that belief in evolution does not necessarily conflict with Christian belief. Those who oppose it tend to be fundamentalist Protestants who take the creation story in the Bible literally and feel that since it describes a very recent creation done over a short period of time, the evidence that the Earth and life evolved over a very much longer period of time through natural processes must be explained away. You’ll find a huge amount of information about this controversy at the Talk-Origins Archive; but one notable fact is that no biological scientists reject evolution and accept “creationism” except those whose religious beliefs require them to do so. The courts have ruled repeatedly that Creationism is not an alternative scientific theory but a religious belief. If it were not, one would expect some substantial number of well-informed non-religious scientists to be persuaded by their evidence. Unfortunately, most of the public is equally ignorant of Biblical studies and modern biology and reacts against evolutionary theory without much thought. It is important to remember that for many devout Christians, evolution is the way in which God creates the world.

I was wondering about where the rules against homosexuality stemmed from.
There is a good discussion of all this, including the relevant Biblical verses, at, which presents both conservative views and a liberal critique of them.

How do we know the Bible isn’t missing books or that books that do not belong are in the Bible? How do we know the Bible is correct?
The Bible evolved over a long time, and exists in several versions. In the introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures in Reading About the World I discuss some of the different versions of the Bible that exist. It’s best regarded as a library rather than as a book. Different groups have decided at different times what belongs and what does not. For the emergence of the Christian canon, see this PBS page.

How do we know the gospel writers didn’t really know Jesus?
Conservative Christians still maintain that the gospel writers were the disciples by those names from among Jesus’ followers; but most nonsectarian and liberal scholars disagree. There are many pieces of evidence, some of which are rather technical; but here are some of the easier ones to understand. They often speak of “the Jews” as if they were not Jews themselves. They usually quote Greek translations of the Jewish Bible rather than the Hebrew version which Jesus would have studied. Matthew and Luke incorporate large chunks of Mark pretty much intact, which would be pointless if they had their own independent memories. Similarly, all the gospel writers seem to have been influenced by Paul, who never met Jesus during his lifetime. Even early Church tradition ascribes at least the Gospels of John and Mark to non-disciples. More importantly, in many passages Jesus is given speeches which many scholars think reflect the attitudes and experience of the early Church rather than anything the historical Jesus was likely to have said. The gospel writers would have collected the traditions that circulated among early believers in many churches rather than developing it originally themselves. All of this is highly controversial, of course; and no one can ever “prove” that the disciples didn’t write the gospels, but few important Bible scholars except those whose faith depends on it insist on the older theory. For more information on this question, see the PBS site related to the series “From Jesus to Christ.”

Some things I would like to learn more about are the Crusades, the search for the Holy Grail and the things that are in the Indiana Jones movies.
We will have a whole session on the First Crusade and its aftermath. The Holy Grail is a medieval legend which gets its classic retelling in the 12th century by Chrétien de Troyes, though he died before he could finish it. Originally it would seem to have been a flat platter, but time transformed it into the goblet used at the Last Supper, and–some say–used by Joseph of Arimethea to capture the blood of Jesus as he was dying on the cross. Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal is based on one version of the Grail legend written by Wolfrang von Eschenbach. You can read an old translation of a conclusion of Chrétien’s work at The only relevant story in the Indiana Jones movies is the quest for the lost Ark (discussed above).

Where did the Trinity come from?
The doctrine of the Trinity (God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is not clearly spelled out anywhere in the Bible. John comes closest, but even he is ambiguous and inconsistent. The gospels attribute various divine titles to God and Jesus, but the early Church felt that Jesus’ precise relationship to God needed to be defined. Almost three centuries of controversy (and sometimes bloody conflict) ensued before the Council of Nicaea stated the orthodox formula in 325. Even so, the arguments continued, and modern Unitarians and many liberal Protestants reject the notion of the Trinity altogether. If you want more detail, see “The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity” in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Why is there only one God in Christianity?
Because it developed out of a monotheistic religion: Judaism, though Jews and Muslims often consider that the doctrine of the Trinity violates strict monotheism (see above).

I’m curious about the connection between Jesus and God. I am curious about how Jesus just knew all the teachings of God.
Orthodox Christianity argues that Jesus was God in human form, though scholars disagree about whether this doctrine is unambiguously presented in the Bible (see previous question). However, throughout its early history, Christianity was torn by differing interpretations of this relationship. Some argued that it was scandalous to think that God could ever be tortured and killed, and supposed that the body of Jesus was an illusion which only seemed to die. Others argued that he was fully human and was merely adopted by God as his chosen one (“adoptionalism”), but was not God himself. Muslims believe that Jesus was an inspired prophet (but reject the account of his teachings in the Christian scriptures as distorted). Modern liberals often see him as a wise man who had revolutionary insights into God’s will, but who was limited in his understanding by his time and culture. Many scholars have attempted to sort out fact from fiction about Jesus. A very well presented account of their efforts by a Unitarian pastor is at the Web site on “The Quest of the Historical Jesus“.

Did everyone believe in the resurrection of Jesus, or were there “naysayers”? If so, how many?
All the earliest writings about Jesus emphasize his resurrection to some degree, and it was a central belief of the Christian religion from the earliest period we can trace. However, many modern nonsectarian scholars think that belief in Jesus’ resurrection was confined to a relatively small group. Some suggest that even the author of the Gospel of Mark wasn’t sure about it since early copies of that book hint at but don’t depict a resurrection, and the resurrection appearances in the other gospels differ so strikingly from each other in contrast with their close agreement about the events leading up to his death. There was even a rumor that the Christians had stolen the body out of the tomb which the gospels are at pains to deny. This suggests that there was little agreement about what had actually happened. Anybody who cared enough to actually argue against the resurrection didn’t find himself quoted in the Bible, of course; and no one considered it a serious enough possibility to write about it outside the Bible, so we’ll never know what the “nay-sayers” had to say. There is a famous passage in the writings of the ancient Jewish writer Josephus which most modern scholars believe was edited or inserted in his book after he wrote it by Christians eager to “plant” some evidence that could corroborate the Gospels. You can read about this (and read the passage itself) at Many scholars believe the whole passage is not originally by Josephus. Clearly if he had held the beliefs expressed in this passage he would have converted to Christianity, but he remained a faithful Jew. Believers commonly argue that the only a real, believable resurrection could have inspired the kind of fervor that led to the founding and spread of the Christian faith, though it is difficult to see how this argument can deal with the much more rapid spread if Islam in the wake of the revelations claimed by Muhammad, whose religion did not–as many suppose–rely on forcible conversions for its success. How, really are the Jewish and Christian religions different? Aren’t most of the views and beliefs the same?
They are closely related, but how you judge their degree of similarity depends upon how you count and evaluate their characteristics. They are both monotheists (though strict Jews would point out that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity verges dangerously on polytheism). Their moral attitudes tend to be similar. Generally one can say that Jews tend to emphasize doing right more than believing rightly; but this is a matter of proportion, and some Christian sects are more like Jews in their orientation than others. For instance, Seventh Day Adventists continue to observe the Jewish Sabbath. Christians ignore the vast majority of the Torah law which is central to Judaism. The differences in their views of the Messiah were explained in class. Jews object strenuously to the ways in which Christians interpret the prophets and psalms to apply them to Jesus. Jews don’t accept the Christian scriptures. Certain passages in the Christian scriptures have been used by Christians to justify vicious attacks on later Jews, and that has certainly driven the two religions apart.

I want to know more about Jesus’ childhood.
Very little is known about Jesus’ childhood. Besides the familiar Christmas stories, the Gospels contain a reference to his first appearance at the Temple and another occasion on which he is supposed to have impressed the temple elders with his learning. The early Church seems to have felt the need to know more about this period in his life, and many stories were written colorfully detailing various miraculous events from his childhood in what are now called “apocryphal” gospels, especially the Protevangelium of James. Many of these stories were well known and influential in the Middle Ages, but were later considered fictional.

I would like to learn more about the differences between Christianity and Catholicism.
The short answer is that there is no difference. Catholicism is the form that Christianity took in Western Europe for 1500 years among the vast majority of believers and which is still widely popular today. Strictly speaking, Christianity is a religion and Catholicism is a variety of faith within that religion. Certain Protestant groups who disagree with various Catholic doctrines or disapprove of the institution of the Church are prone to call it “non-Christian,” but one should be aware that one is engaging in highly offensive insult by doing so. From the point of view of the true believer, anyone who disagrees with his or her doctrines is a “non-Christian”; but historians have to take a more neutral stance: people who use the label “Christian” for their beliefs over a long period of time deserve to be called Christians. If you mean to ask about the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, that is a topic covered in Gen Ed 111.

I want to know more about the trial of Jesus.
Each of the four gospels contains an account of the trial, varying only in minor details. The trial has been endlessly analyzed, with many Jews and some Christians claiming that the Biblical accounts are biased in blaming the Jews rather than the Romans for Jesus’ death. For an influential book taking the latter view, see John Dominic Crossan: The Cross that Spoke: The Origins of the Passion Narrative. Others: Ellis Rivkin: What Crucified Jesus? and Solomon Zeitlin: Who Crucified Jesus?

Why, if Christianity is monotheistic, did they show other divine spirits like the spirit of the River Jordan in their early paintings?
There seems to be a basic human drive to surround the divine with lesser spirits: even Judaism and Islam have angels. The early Roman Church seems to have been comfortable with the idea of incorporating the old nature deities into its imagery without making them rivals of God the Father. We don’t know what the people who created these images really believed about them.

Can you repeat what you said about the Golden Rule?
Essentially I amplified what is said in the introductory note to the passage in the reader. Although the Golden Rule is sometimes claimed as uniquely Christian, the principle of reciprocity which it expresses is nearly universal in human culture. One can hardly imagine a law which is not based to some extent or other on the idea of treating others as one would want to be treated, even if various elements of discrimination by class, gender, etc. are allowed to modify the basic principle. Confucius’ teaching that one should do nothing to others that one would not done to one’s self–though denigratingly called “the silver rule” by some Christians–is in practice very little different from the Golden Rule–and antedates it by half a millenium.

I would like to know more about how Jews and Christians differ on the Messiah issue.
The chart I gave you covers the basics:

Jewish Messiah Christian Messiah
  • Fully human, chosen by God
  • Divine offspring or God himself
  • Military leader and ruler
  • Peaceful prophetic preacher and miracle-worker
  • Upholds traditional law
  • Expands and revises traditional law
  • Rules the entire world from Jerusalem
  • Establishes Heavenly kingdom (“My kingdom is not of this world.”)
  • Lives forever, bringing with him an era of immortality and justice for the faithful, destruction (or–later–damnation) the wicked.
  • Dies, but is resurrected to give his followers eternal rewards, for those who reject him, eternal damnation after death.
  • The world is transformed both physically and spiritually upon the arrival of the Messiah.
  • The transformation of the world is postponed until the second coming of the Messiah.
  • The Messiah has not yet come
  • Jesus was the Messiah

The concept of the Messiah is not nearly as important to Judaism as it is to Christianity. For an easy-to-read Jewish view of the differences, see Samuel Sandmel: We Jews and Jesus.

Why did the Jews believe that Jesus was a great teacher but not the Messiah?
Ancient Jews did not in fact recognize Jesus as a great teacher. From their point of view he was a dangerous heretic who led many away from the true faith. Some liberal modern Jews like Samuel Sandmel (see above) take a relatively admiring view of some of his teachings; but he is not normally cited by Jews as a teaching authority, whereas rabbis like Hillel and Shammai (who lived just before Jesus) and Akiba (who lived shortly after) are still admired and studied in depth. Jesus is not mentioned anywhere in the Talmud (the standard, authoritative commentary on the Torah). For Jews, Jesus violated too many of their standard expectations to be accepted as the Messiah. It should be acknowledged that a modern organization called “Jews for Jesus” accepts his Messiaship, but this is actually a form of Protestant fundamentalism which tries to convert Jews who find Christian beliefs appealing while retaining certain features of Jewish worship. Muslims accept Jesus as an inspired prophet, and even believe in the Virgin Birth, but Jews do not.

How can the Christian Messiah revise the traditional law?
The simplest answer is that Christians changed the Jewish concept of the Messiah from one who restores and upholds the law to one who expands, reinterprets, and overrules some aspects of the law. This issue was faced early on in the writings of Paul, who declares that a “New Covenant” has been decreed by God which supersedes the old Torah. The Jews of course disagree.

Why do Christians use the cross so often when it was such an evil symbol? A symbol or memory of their Messiah’s death.
In the early centuries, the cross was not an important symbol in the Christian Church for just this reason: Jesus as gentle shepherd was more common, as were other symbols unrelated to his death. However, once the Christian rulers of Rome had banned crucifixion as a punishment, its immediate negative connotations faded. The empty cross came to stand for the Resurrection, and therefore for the hope of eternal life, and the crucifix with Jesus on it for his sacrifice for all humanity.

I would like to know your understanding of Predestination.
This is a doctrine associated mostly with certain Protestants, notably John Calvin; but the underlying philosophical problem had been pondered by ancient Greek philosophers long before the time of Jesus. The argument goes that if God is all-powerful and all-knowing, he must know before people are born whether they will go to Heaven or Hell. Other Christians argue that since he is responsible for setting all of creation into motion, and no one is born against his will, it is difficult to see how he can escape blame for creating people who will inevitably be damned. Therefore Catholicism and most forms of Protestantism insist strongly on the doctrine of Free Will: people are able freely to choose salvation or damnation. Calvin was less bothered by this tension by than the apparent limit on God’s powers implied by Free Will, so he rejected it and insisted that we are all born destined either for Heaven or Hell. It is wisest, of course, to behave as if you were one of the Elect (saved), because if you believe and act like a damned person you almost certainly are one. Strict interpretations of Predestination are relatively rare in Christianity.

I’d like to know more about Christianity in general; but specifically about the judgement of who goes to Heaven, works vs. faith, that sort of thing.
This is too big a topic to tackle here; but we can say generally that traditional Christianity differs from Judaism in its insistence that one believe in Jesus as savior: no amount of good works can save a disbeliever. Modern liberal Protestants and some Catholics take the much more Jewish view that God accepts those whose behavior pleases them whatever their beliefs. Traditional Catholics take as their beginning point faith in the basic tenets of Christian doctrine and go on to say that one must repent of one’s sins and perform penance, either in this life or the next, in order to be forgiven and saved. Some Protestants argue that sufficient faith can overcome any amount of sin, though none of them actually encourage sin. The differences between the two are often exaggerated, especially by fundamentalist Protestants. Both views actually combine belief in works and faith in various proportions.

How can things like borrowing $ for college be applied to the ascetic ideal?
Some would say it can’t–that Jesus never envisioned the world lasting long enough for anyone to spend their savings on anything, let alone a college education (this theory argues that he–or the early Chruch–was mistaken in thinking that the end of the world was right around the corner, a view associated with Albert Schweitzer, who argued that Jesus preached an “interim ethic” which never envisioned the world lasting another 2,000 years). A more orthodox view takes these teachings symbolically as a general orientation against excessive materialism. It is interesting that Christians who are most insistent on reading the Bible literally generally interpret passages from the Sermon on the Mount such as this symbolically. The early Church was made up mostly of poor people, and needed little urging to shun riches. The gospel denunciations of riches were very traditionally Jewish, like the teachings of the prophets Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah. When the religion prospered and many wealthy and powerful people were converted, the ascetic aspect of the religion was downplayed, and generally restricted to monastic orders or certain periods in an individual believer’s life.

“No one can serve two masters . . . devoted to one and despise the other.” Could you please explain?
You can’t serve both God and money. If you’re a slave to money you can’t be a servant of God.

I would like to hear more about the miracles and who performed them.
Mark’s gospel puts more emphasis on the miracles performed by Jesus than the others do. Acts contains some miracles performed by or on behalf of some of the disciples. Both are easy to read. Belief in miraculous powers was widespread in the first centuries. Certain rabbis were famous for performing miracles, as were many pagan wonder-workers. Most of Jesus’ miracles fall under the categories of healing and combatting demon possession. Another interesting category is the multiplying of food or drink, which many scholars think was intended to echo similar miracles conntected with the Jewish prophet Elijah, who was widely expected to return in the days of the Messiah. The resurrection of Lazarus, and more ambiguously the healing of the centurian’s daughter, are presented as examples of raising for the dead, important for their symbolism. It is always the message behind the miracles that most interests the gospel writers. They take it for granted that miracles can be done. Early Christians accepted that non-Christians could perform miracles too, through evil means. One early story tells how a magician named Simon Magus miraculously levitated himself many feet in the air but was killed when a Christian counter-miracle dashed him to the ground. You can read more about miracles in various religions in the Encyclopedia Britannica by reading the article on “miracle.” There is a short article, but look for the longer, multi-part account.

I would like to learn more about the passages about Heaven and Hell, fire and brimstone stuff.
There are actually surprisingly few direct references to Hell in the gospels, though there are many more of them than there are references to Heaven as a place of salvation. In addition, we get few details about Hell, and even fewer about Heaven. Hell is said to feature flames, weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth, and worms that gnaw at their victims endlessly. Some churches argue that none of this actually makes clear that torture in Hell lasts forever. The souls of the damned may eventually be consigned to oblivion, they argue, though Hell itself is eternal. The majority of Christians who believe in Hell argue instead that the implication is that the damned suffer throughout eternity, without end, unlike Mahayana Buddhists, who see Hell as a temporary state from which one may emerge, purged of sin, to be reborn. It is also strongly implied in the Gospels that the majority of people will go to Hell, with only the minority being saved. This is a much more controversial point. The early Church had few problems with seeing itself as a minority; but the doctrine was not so attractive when the majority of Europeans became Christian, and the implications were disregarded or reinterpreted to explain them away. The Book of Revelation contains a colorful account of the process of condemnation to Hell with a little more detail about the sufferings of the damned. Its author may have been more interested in symbolism than in literal description. There’s a convenient compilation by a fundamentalist of references to Hell in the Bible on the Web, though it should be pointed out that the references to Sheol from the Jewish Bible cited there would not be accepted by many modern scholars as applying to the same beliefs that Christians have held about Hell. For a traditional (pre-Vatican II) Catholic version of doctrines about hell, see the Catholic Encyclopedia. The detailed descriptions in Dante’s Inferno were meant to allegorically convey Christian ideals rather than to literally depict Hell’s punishments.

What is the prayer when saying the Rosary?
The rosary is a string of beads used to keep track of repeated prayers, usually the Hail Mary and the Lord’s Prayer. A full traditional rosary consists of reciting The Hail Mary 150 times, punctuated by recitations of the Our Father (Lord’s Prayer) every tenth time. Here is the text of the Hail Mary: “Hail Mary, full of grace; The Lord is with thee: Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” Interestingly, the custom of counting prayers on strings of beads also occurs in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.

I would like to know more about Coptic Christians.
There is a good Coptic site on the Web at that should answer most of your questions.

I would like to learn more about the Romans and persecution of Christians.
Detailed information is available on the various pages related to the PBS documentary From Jesus to Christ. Medieval legend greatly exaggerated the extent and duration of the persecution. Modern scholars point out it was sporadic.

Did the Christians ever fight back against the Greeks when the Greeks were killing them?
You’re thinking of the Romans. There are no records of armed Christian resistance. The Christians were all too aware that the Jewish uprisings against the Romans had ended disastrously for the Jews, and they were eager avoid imitating them. Their resistance consisted at most in refusal to obey the command to worship and insistance on remaining true to their faith. There is some evidence the early Church was pacifist (soldiers weren’t allowed to become members), so fighting back may have been considered against their religion.

Why did Christians meet in secret, and how did they know of other Christian followers?
They were secretive partly because they were trying to avoid the notice of the Roman authorities, and partly because they seemed to have believed that they had a secret doctrine which should be kept from outsiders who had not joined the Church. They behaved somewhat like the mystery religions in this respect. The early churches sometimes had an open session where visitors were welcome, but then closed the service to all but members for the most sacred rituals. They weren’t so secretive that you couldn’t ask around and find out where services were going on. By the way, the notion that they literally worshipped underground in the catacombs of Rome is mistaken. That’s where they buried their dead.

Could you please talk about early Christians, a couple years after the death of Christ? About the early Church?
Our sources for the very earliest church include Paul’s letters and the book of Acts, though many modern scholars believe that important clues to the experiences and views of early believers can be found in the way the gospels tell the story of Jesus. Again, the From Jesus to Christ site is largely devoted to the arguments of modern scholars about how the early church evolved its ideas about Jesus.

How do we know when the next coming of Jesus is?
Although people have interpreted many passages in the Bible as predicting the return of Jesus at a particular date (and have done so for 2,000 years, always expecting it soon), Paul specifically warns Christians in 1 Thessalonians 5 that they should not expect to know exactly when the end will come, and in Matthew 24 Jesus says that no one can know, and that he will return when no one expects him. This doesn’t seem to discourage people from trying to figure it out anyway. It is interesting that the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who long used as their motto “Millions now alive will never die!” have now abandoned the attempt to nail down the date of the Second Coming.

How is it that there are so many different Christian beliefs (Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc.). Is it because of different findings, prayers, etc.?
A comprehensive answer to this questions would be a whole history of Christianity. You should learn a little about the evolution of the various forms of Protestantism in Gen Ed 111. Each church has its own roots in faith, in politics, in personal leadership, etc. When the Catholic Church lost its dominant grip on Western Europe during the Reformation, the door was opened to many differing versions of Christianity to emerge–and they did.

What would be the difference between a Baptist and a Methodist’s religious beliefs?
I don’t know enough about these denominations to give you a good answer, but there is a page of links which can you lead you to pages that explain all kinds of American churches at

I would like to know more about the historical accuracy of the Bible.
You can learn a lot about this by taking English/Humanities 335 or reading the textbook used in that class: Stephen L. Harris: Understanding the Bible.

Why is Christianity so popular?
There are many historical reasons why it remained popular for a long time in Western Europe (its institutions and values were centrally entwined with European politics, art, and culture), but its popularity has shrunk drastically there. Only a tiny proportion of people in most Western European countries are practicing Christians, compared to Americans. It is growing in places where it was formerly forbidden, like Russia, and is experiencing quite a growth spurt in Africa, but it has never really caught on in Japan or in many other Asian countries in the way that Buddhism did. To study why Christianity appeals to certain populations in certain eras you need to study those eras in more detail than I can address here.

Questions about Rome

Did Romans basically just rename the gods of the Greeks? Was it a way of incorporating the cultures–or why did they do it?
The Romans had their own gods, but because they admired the Greeks so much they assimilated their own pantheon to that of the Greeks. Jupiter became thought of as the “Roman Zeus” and Venus as the “Roman Aphrodite,” and so on; but it wasn’t simply a matter of renaming gods. They saw similarities and drew analogies and merged the two systems together, adopting many Greek religious practices while maintaining many of their own.

Who were the gladiators and what exactly did they do?
Slaves trained to fight to the death against other gladiators or wild animals for entertainment. Some lucky ones became famous after many victories and were freed and even became rich, but most died in the arena.

Why did the volcano destroy Pompeii?
Lava buried some of the city, but most of it was buried under a thick layer of hot ash. Gasses had suffocated many of the people first, so they were quickly buried by the ash.

I would like to know more about the mystery religions.
This is a huge subject, covered in many books on the origins of Christianity. There is a good discussion of it in the last of the videotapes in the “Testament” series. The “From Jesus to Christ” Web site also has a good deal of detail about them.

I would like to know more about Roman architecture.
The videotape “Art of the Western World,” part one, has a good survey of Greek and Roman architecture.

I’d like to hear more about the family life in Rome and the role of women and children.
I highly recommend volume 1 of The History of Private Life, Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby, general editors: GT2400 .H5713 1987. It’s easy to read, filled with illustrations, and has wonderful essays on these topics.

Were the Romans influenced by any other cultures, besides the Greeks?
As your textbook points out, their civilization was profoundly influenced by the Etruscans. Certain Egyptian influences are also present, particularly in religion; but the overwhelmingly greatest influence was Greek.

Did Romans speak Italian?
Ancient Romans spoke Latin. Italian is a language that evolved out of Latin after the fall of the Roman Empire.

I know that Rome got a lot of their literature, religion, education, etc. from Greek civilization. So did the Romans change any of the interpretation of the literature, religion, education?
This is too big a question to answer here. The short answer is “yes.” Example: they traced their own ancestors to descendents of the Trojans, putting them on the opposite side of the Trojan War from Homer’s Greeks. They often bought Greek slaves to use as teachers.

I thought it was interesting that some slave owners had a fear of their slaves. It was a shock to me when I read about some slaves actually murdering their owners.
For a great movie on the most famous slave revolt of all time, see the recently restored version of Stanley Kubrik’s Spartacus.

I thought it was cool to see the operating tools the doctors used! Do they have displays that show what each was used for?
I imagine some museums may, but I haven’t seen them. Medieval medical treatises were often based on Roman ones, and had illustrations in them; but whether they were at all accurate I wouldn’t know.

Like Mt. St. Helens, were there any warnings of the Vesuvius blowup?
There was a big, disastrous earthquake 17 years earlier, but the actual explosion seems to have caught them by surprise.

Does anyone know how the Romans made their aqueducts water-tight? They had to seal those cracks somehow. About how long did they take to make?
I’m afraid I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I know that aqueducts ran most of their length underground, in pipes, and that the valley-crossing arched kind I showed you was covered to inhibit evaporation.

What was the % of Romans in the army at the fullest extent of the empire?
I don’t know whether statistics are really available on this. I do know that long-term service in the army was one way to become a citizen, and that toward the end there were almost no Romans in the army–it became made up of foreigners.

Did Rome transform into Italy?
The ancient country of Rome plus part of southern Gaul became what we call today “Italy.”

Did the Romans take or believe in their gods and goddesses as seriously as the Greeks?
About the same; that is, not very. The Olympian gods were often joked about. Worshippers took the gods of the mystery religions more seriously.

For more on Rome, try
S.P.Q.R. Online
the Pompeii Forum Project

Questions about Greek Philosophy

Was Protagoras in essence an atheist? He seems to present the idea that there is no connection between God and Humanity.
His writings imply agnosticism: refusal to decide whether gods exist or not. But it is significant that he was charged with impiety during his lifetime, had his books burned, and was finally exiled from Athens for his beliefs (or lack of them).

Why did Protagoras not believe in a God? How does he think the world began if man is the measure of all things.
The simple answer is that it is not clear Protagoras disbelieved in a God (see above). But more to the point, not all religions connect the origin of the world with the activity of a god. Often enough the world is just “born” through natural processes which produce the gods as well. Many Greeks believed the world to be eternal–it might not have had a beginning at all.

Explain more about Xenophanes. I don’t understand anything you were saying about him.
Look at my introductory note to the selection from him. This is a very simple passage which just argues that people all over make up images of gods which look like them.

How many Gods were there in ancient Greece?
The Greeks welcomed the opportunity to worship gods appropriate for every occasion. The number was indefinite, counting them made difficult by some of them blending together or splitting off. There was also a large number demigods and other immortals which make any census difficult.

I am unclear about the atomists and Leucippus.
The atomists argued that the world is made up of tiny indivisible particles which they called “atoms.” That’s really all you need to know about them. Their importance is exaggerated because they turned out to be (sort of) right; but their speculations didn’t lead to any scientific revolution in the ancient world.

Why did the Athenians sentence Socrates to commit suicide?
They accused him of atheism and of corrupting the youth of Athens. But the real reasons probably had more to do with his opposition to the government of the day. We don’t know for sure what caused the trial. You can read his famous defense called “The Apology” for his view of the matter. For an interesting modern book arguing that Socrates was guilty, see I.F. Stone: The Trial of Socrates.

How did Plato avoid winding up like Socrates with the way that people disliked his opinions?
Like most of Socrates’ closest companions, Plato went abroad after the old philosophers’ death.

I want to know more about the Socratic method.
The best way to learn is simply to read some of Plato’s dialogues and observe the method at work. Socrates argues that everyone already has buried within the truth, and that adroit questioning can bring it out. But you can see him framing his questions in such a way that he steers the people he is questioning toward what he wants them to say. To some degree, his famous method is a series of rhetorical tricks that try to convince people that they have arrived at agreement with him voluntarily. But we praise the method today as aiming at getting people to think and not just parrot back what they’re told.

Maybe a clearer explanation on the difference between Socrates’s thinking and Plato’s. Same? Different?
Since most of what we know about Socrates’ thought we get from Plato, it is very difficult to distinguish between the two, and ultimately it doesn’t matter very much. The important and lasting ideas are those that they shared. Scholars will continue to argue endlessly about just where one ends and other begins.

I would like to know more about the actual relationship between Socrates and Plato: were they close, or is it known?
Frustratingly, he never depicts himself talking with Socrates in his dialogues. He met the older philosopher when he was about 20, and remained fascinated with him for life, so he clearly felt he knew him fairly well. Beyond that, we cannot say.

Why did people trust and believe Plato since changed his mind about his beliefs and made hem more like Socrates’ beliefs?
Plato appears as a follower of Socrates from the earliest writings we have by him. He may have changed later in his career, as he developed his own ideas in addition, but he was not known as a philosopher before his studies with Socrates.

Since Socrates believed in an “after life,” I wonder how he felt that Plato was taking his place and his words on philosophy? What was Socrates thinking: insulted or grateful?
Plato began his writing after Socrates’ death, so I unless he was worrying about it in the next life, I doubt he cared one way or another.

I was wondering about Socrates’ family. Did he have a wife or children or siblings?
The wife he married late in life, Xanthippe, was said by some to be hard to get along with; but he can’t have been a very supportive husband given his preference for talking philosophy over supporting his family. Three sons survived him, but none became famous.

Why didn’t Socrates write his dialogues down? Why did only others write them?
The short answer is: we don’t know. But he lived in a largely oral culture, where many important manners were handled by speech rather than writing, and where an impressive number of people were able to recite Homer’s works aloud from memory. Books were rare and expensive. All the great philosophers before him survive only in what others say about him. Plato was unusual in being the first literary Greek philosopher.

What did the common people believe with reference to religion and philosophy?
It is unlikely that many ordinary people were much interested in the details of the thought of philosophers like Socrates, but they were certainly aware of him and others–enough so that the comic playwright Aristophanes could entertain the public by making fun of Socrates. As for religion, they probably devoted themselves to various gods and rituals in a wide variety or ways and to a wide range of degrees. We know very little about the thoughts of obscure people from ancient cultures. Vol. 1 of The History of Private Life, edited by Philippe Aries, will give you some information.

Where did the majority of philosophers come from and why?
“Why?” isn’t a question I can answer. Thales was born in Miletus (now in Turkey), as was his pupil Anaximander. The west coast of Anatolia, known as Ionia, was home to many of the pre-Socratics. After Socrates, many philosophers were attracted to Athens, as a famous center of philosophy. Aristotle was born in Stagira, and is sometimes called “the Stagirite.” As a young boy he was sent by his father to Athens to study with Plato and spent the first 20 years of his life there.

Were people like Socrates above normal people; did they live like kings or were they jut known as great people?
Some were better off than others, but they were rarely rich. Socrates, though a prominent and influential citizens of Athens, was quite poor for much of his life.

Was there a king that was also a philosopher?
Not in ancient Greece: they did away with the institution of kingship early on. Alexander may well have considered himself a philosopher. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor, is considered a minor Stoic philosopher. We’ll read some of his philosophical writings soon. But “philosopher-kings” such as Plato dreamed of never became a reality.

Was Socrates very old? In the painting he seemed older than I imagined. Could that be another reason he wasn’t afraid to die?
He was 71 when he died, and indeed states in the defense at his trial that he has lived a long life and therefore considers it not a tragedy that his life may end soon. However, not all people become less anxious about death as they age: often older people fear it far more than young ones. (That’s one reason armies prefer young soldiers.)

How do we know so much about Socrates, because he had no writings? How do we know that Plato didn’t just make up the stuff about Socrates?
Other people wrote about Socrates too. He was very famous. But it is quite likely that he didn’t speak the precise words quoted in Plato’s dialogues. Ancient writers felt no obligation to render speeches word-for-word.

Did everyone buy into Socrates’ ideas? Who opposed him?
His story makes clear that many did oppose him. There were probably very few strict followers of the Socratic philosophy at first. Some people thought he was absurd (Aristophanes), but ardent advocates of democracy in Athens and foes of Sparta would have disliked his views on politics.

So was Socrates put to death or given a choice to die like the story?
He was sentenced to die by the court by being commanded to drink the hemlock potion that would poison him. He complied.

What is Plato most famous for as far as a philosophical idea goes?
His theory of “forms” or “ideals” which I outlined in class is his most famous contribution to philosophy. In technical terms, he is the founder of philosophical realism–the doctrine that qualities like virtue, love, and courage are concrete realities independent from the people that may seek them. Aristotle, on the other hand, is the founder of philosophical nominalism–the doctrine that such abstractions are merely language describing a variety of ideas and attitudes which we choose for convenience’s sake to lump together under these labels. These conflicting attitudes toward abstraction are important aspects of the history of philosophy down to today, with nominalism clearly having the greater influence at present.

I don’t understand the idea of “tableness” or Plato’s ideas of the supernatural being of things.
These really aren’t complicated ideas, but they can be difficult to grasp just because they seem so alien to us today. He would argue that we recognize a wide variety of tables because they incorporate physically the ideal form of “tableness” which exists in the abstract, separate from any individual table. For more details see Theory of Forms.

I am not clear on Thales and the idea that everything is based on water. What is the real significance or meaning of that?
What is significant about his philosophy is that he attempted to find some underlying unity and structure in the universe, a way to talk about the world in the abstract. In so doing, he may be said to be the first Greek philosopher.

Who didn’t believe in gods and why? In one god or many gods; the reasons why.
We don’t know many of these details, but Homer set the example early on of describing gods that many Greeks found implausible. Rather than deny all reality to the gods, they preferred usually to consider such playful tales as exaggerations, and still thought the rituals worthy of performance. They tended to separate the myths that fascinate us so much, and which entertained them, from the sacred rituals and sacrifices that were considered an important part of everyday life. The Greeks were sometimes troubled by the conflicting demands of gods with opposing interests, but most of them probably were content to turn to Aphrodite when they were in love and to Ares in time of war–choosing the god appropriate to the occasion. Some philosophers, like Plato, speak of “God” in the abstract as if they believed in a single divinity. These early writings were profoundly influential on early Christian thinkers, who saw foreshadowings of their own beliefs in Greek philosophy.

What similarity can you draw between Plato’s republic and the democratic society we live in today?
Plato’s Republic described an elitist, anti-democratic society. It doesn’t bear much comparison with ours. Highly educated intellectuals ran his society, arranging matings in a secretly manipulated lottery designed to produce superior offspring. There was no voting by citizens. Be wary of people who praise Plato’s Republic to you; they may be bent on robbing you of your freedom.

Plato’s ideas state that all people are created or have equality. But why does he focus on only the enlightened people that could grasp the new ways of looking at the world differently?
There are several misconceptions here. Plato never argued for equality. He does write about other classes in The Republic, but it’s true he cares most about the philosopher-kings. His concern is that society by governed by those he considered the wisest. But he didn’t want them to grasp “new ways” exactly. He thinks that wise people grasp the eternal truths that have always existed. In this way he is somewhat like Confucius. He never claimed to be putting forward new ideas.

I want to know more about the “Allegory of the Cave.” It was very confusing.
Did you read my explanatory introduction and footnotes in Reading About the World? I tried to reduce the passage to its essentials there. If you want to understand what Plato is describing image by image, the key is to read the passage very, very slowly. Stop at the end of each sentence and try to visualize exactly what he has just described. Or just look at this graphic. Try this explanation by UW professor Marc Cohen. Or see the explanation by Michael O’Leary.

Why do you think Plato’s argument about living in the shadows is no longer accepted today?
Some people still find the Allegory of the Cave attractive as an account of the importance of education, but generally modern philosophers have decided that categories such as “virtue” and “love” are abstractions that are purely human-created, and do not exist independently from the people who think about them.

Some readings from Aristotle.
You can find all his works listed on this page, with links to older translations. For more modern translations with explanatory notes, see the library.

How did Aristotle systematize logic? What were his rules in forming arguments?
Read the article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for a quick introduction to the basics. For a much simpler, if somewhat quirky, approach, see the chapter on logic in Ralph Arthur Hall’s A Measure of Truth

What else did Plato do?
He came from a prominent political family, but his beliefs made him unfit for a career in politics. After the death of Socrates he traveled for a while, then settled in Syracuse, where he founded the famous Academy, which was to last for centuries, developing his thought.

I would like to know how the Romans came about the Greek philosophical ideas.
Rome owed much of its intellectual heritage to the Greeks. It was only natural that their growing empire, which covered all of ancient Greece, would incorporate much that was Greek. And just as many European and other foreign thinkers have settled in the U.S., Greeks were drawn to the center of wealth and power in Rome. The stoic philosopher Epictetus was even brought there as a slave.

If they were so revolutionary why did anyone listen to the philosophers? Weren’t they afraid of the consequences?
The Greeks were proud of being innovators. Despite the occasional waves of repression that swept across their culture, the society was generally open to speculation. Remember that it was quite late in the Classical age that Socrates had been condemned to death. By then several centuries of Greek philosophers had laid down the tradition of speculation.

What did they do with women who wanted to learn to participate in philosophical arguments?
Female citizens were discouraged from becoming involved in any kind of learned pursuit, including philosophy; but some women were famous thinkers anyway. Socrates speaks of a wise woman he admired in The Symposium named Diotima. Professional courtesans were sometimes highly educated and could discuss philosophy, like Aspasia, the lover of the great Athenian leader Pericles. The best-known ancient female philosopher was Hypatia of Alexandria.

Did the philosophers carry out normal lives or did they just think of theories all day?
Presumably they had normal lives, but we know almost nothing about their private lives. Plato portrays Socrates as neglecting his labor to engage in philosophy.

I think the lecture should contain stuff about the similarities between the Romans and the Greeks because one of these peoples stole the culture from the other.
We’ll discuss Roman philosophy soon. They built on the ideas of the Greeks, particularly Stoicism. It’s important to be able to keep them straight, however, so in an introductory course we discuss the Greeks separately first.

How did people know that the gods were mad at them? Or if the gods were pleased with them?
The Greeks were no different than most peoples in this regard: when illness, accidents, poverty, or other disasters came to them they tended to think they had been cursed by the gods; and when

I would like to know more about how Greek philosophy influences political structure.
Socrates and Plato failed to have any real influence on the politics of their time. It’s not clear that Socrates’ tutoring of Alexander the Great had any lasting influence on the way he governed either. But all these philosophers were studied by political thinkers for centuries afterward. Their influence is complex a subject to trace here. But the Stoics were particularly important in Roman times because their search for tranquil acceptance of death was very valuable under arbitrary tyrants like Nero.

Questions about Ancient Greece

By far the most popular questions were about the Greek gods and Greek myths generally.
We can’t do much with this topic in this class, unfortunately, but I can make a few comments and direct you to other sources. The Greek gods are important because long after anyone still believed in them, they became personfications of various ideas for Europeans, particularly in the period from the Renaissance to the present, though usually they were referred to by their Roman rather than their Greek names, often based on the stories in the Metamorphoses of Ovid. Ares (Roman Mars) stood for war, Poseidon (Roman Neptune) for the sea, Athena (Roman Minerva) for wisdom, and Aphrodite (Venus) for love. You can view many images of the various gods at Mythological Images of Greek Gods. A good introduction is The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Greek Mythology. You’ll find more myths covered at Mythica. Note that both contain many hyperlink cross-references. A basic intro to the major gods is at Mythweb. You can see how the various gods relate to each other at Greek Gods and their Associates.

If this subject really interests you, consider taking one of our two terrific courses on the subject: Humanities 101 (The Ancient World) and Humanities 103 (Mythology). Either course fulfills the “H” requirement for a humanities class.

Are Greeks currently traditional towards their gods?
The Greeks converted to Christianity early in the common era, and religious ones today are mostly Greek Orthodox. No one seriously worships the ancient Greek gods any more.

Many of you asked questions about the Olympic Games.
There are many good sites explaining their history on the Web. I’ll point out only a few things, and you should then explore the best of them,  Ancient Olympic Games Virtual Museum. Unlike the modern Games, the ancient ones were strictly Greek. Non-Greeks couldn’t participate. They were begun supposedly as a way of cementing a peace treaty, and always had religious associations.

What foundations for modern democracy or modern world political government did Greece contribute?
Although the emerging democracies of the 19th century were happy to hark back to the Greeks as models, there was in fact almost no direct influence from the ancient Greek model on modern forms of government.

I would like to know more about Greek currency.
The Encyclopedia Britannica article is detailed, but you’ll find more pictures of coins at the Ancient Greek and Romans Coins.

Did they develop the first indoor plumbing in a city?
They weren’t the first, and their plumbing wasn’t as good as Roman plumbing, but some houses did have indoor toilets. See the History of Plumbing.

Why did most of the plays that were written in this period disappear from existence?
The original authors did not expect them to be performed more than once. They were thought of as events, not as literature. By the time people began to try to preserve the texts of some of the plays, only the most popular had been kept, and only some of those managed to survive in the ensuing centuries. Only plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides survived, though we have the names of many other authors and titles. After a while, the Greeks stopped writing new tragedies, and preserved only these “classics.”

Exactly what was the Oracle at Delphi and how did it work?
The Oracle of Apollo at Delphi dates back to 1400 BCE, and wass considered the most sacred shrine in Greece. Visitors asked questions of the Pythia (the priestess of Apollo), who gave cryptic answers interpreted by priests. Although the oracle was consulted by many people, but its answers were famously often ambiguous or misleading. For more details, see here.

I want to know more about the statue of Athena in the Parthenon.
All we have are small copies. You can read more about it and see one at

I want to know more about the military tactics Athens used to defeat the Persians.
See Livio C. Stecchini’s The Persian Wars. Read the chapter on “the Battle of Marathon,” perhaps the most famous battle fought in ancient Greece.

What are the great battles of the Greeks?
The two most famous conflicts are the Persian War, which culminated in the Battle of Marathon, and the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. The first you can read about in Herodotus, the second in Thucydides.

If you felt like drinking, would you worship Dionysis until you didn’t want to drink any more?
Although the worship of Dionysus involved drinking, Greeks felt no need to worship him when they drank. They tended to look down on drunkeness most of the time, watering their wine with two parts water to one part wine. In Plato’s Symposium, he depicts as drunkenness as silly, and Socrates as superior because he could drink a good deal of wine without becoming drunk. But the ecstatic side of Dionysus’ worship did involve becoming deliberately intoxicated to induce a sacred ecstasy.

If you felt like having sex, you need to worship Aphrodite?
Men might pray to Aphrodite for help if they were trying to seduce a woman, or a woman might pray to her sometimes if she was trying to conceive a child; but her services were not needed for ordinary sex. Of course she was not involved in the male-male sex that was so common in Greece either.

I would like to know more about Greek architecture.
Greek architecture, as continued and modified by the Romans, has been the most influential in the Western World. There don’t seem to be any really comprehensive sites on Greek architecture, though there are many good books in the library, and you can get a general overview in the Encyclopedia Britannica. But the Perseus site lets you search for images by site or period. There are even more photos at the University of Colorado’s Harpies art site

About how long did it take to build the temples that were made out of stone?
The Parthenon took 15 years. It was exceptionally large, but Athens also had exceptional resources to pay for it (taxes from its empire).

Why didn’t the women exercize in the nude?
Spartan girls did; but generally the Greeks felt that women’s nude bodies were shameful, unlike men’s. Most of them reserved athletic events from men alone–clothed or unclothed. The Spartans were more concerned about free citizens vs. slaves rather than men vs. women, so they were willing to have women participate in activities shunned in other Greek societies. There was one race for women in the Olympic games in which women ran clothed, except that one breast was bared: a theme often picked up later in European art.

Why was Sophocles persecuted?
You’re thinking of Socrates, the philosopher, who was condemned to die by the Athenians, rather than the playwright Sophocles, who was greatly honored by them. We’ll talk about the death of Socrates in class.

Why did the Greeks decide that women had no rights? Did they get it from another culture or did they decide it themselves?
I’m not sure anybody has the answer to this question. Most ancient cultures gave women few rights, but many of the oldest myths of the Greeks seem aimed at rationalizing downright hostility to women. Did the myths cause the hostility or the hostility cause the myths? Hard to say.

Why were women so excluded in Greek society by men, but men worshipped goddesses?
Some goddesses, like Zeus’ wife Hera, served to help keep women in their place, by emphasizing traditional wifely roles and being clearly subservient. The Greeks probably worshipped some goddesses like Athena before becoming to severely sexist, then had to rationalize their beliefs in terms of their new attitudes. For instance, they argued that Athena was born out of Zeus’ forehead rather than from any woman, and that she always sided with men. She was “the exception that proves the rule.”

What was the new idea of male homosexuality about? How was it derived?
Their accepting attitude toward male homosexuality is one of the most distinctive traits of the ancient Greeks, yet they wrote surprisingly little about it. Michel Foucault, in his influential History of Sexuality, scrutinized what little was left; and none of it really explains how these attitudes first arose. However, we can speculate. In many cultures and subcultures in which women are strictly banned, men substitute young men for the missing women. The stringent Greek efforts to banish most women from public life left only prostitutes and boys available for extramarital sex.

From the skimpy evidence we have, it was expected that many teenagers would take an adult male lover who would train and educate them as well as have sex with them. Oddly, the younger partner was discouraged from enjoying the sex, though some clearly did. They were supposed to outgrow this passive role and go on to take younger lovers of their own. It was seen as a stage to pass through. Plato depicts adult males as having a somewhat comical passion for Socrates (notoriously old and ugly at the time), and presents male-male love as superior to love for women so long as it was not expressed physically; but he seems to have been exceptional in this as in so many other things. There are numerous love poems expressing love between men, including some that seem to be pretty indifferent to whether the love object is male or female. There is some pretty graphic art depicting male-male love, though you won’t see it in textbooks. There are some in Cecile Beurdeley’s book, L’Amour bleu or for some mild examples, go to Perseus and search for vases vases using the keyword “courting.”. Some other people did condemn the Greek attitude toward homosexuality, but many Middle Eastern cultures were pretty tolerant as well (the Jews were the big exception). Alexander the Great was famously more devoted to his male lover than to the various princesses he married for diplomatic reasons. Models like that kept gay love fashionable for a long time, even among the Romans, who sometimes criticized it. For more information, see Mentorship in the Education of Males and Male Love in Ancient Greece.

What about the education of children?
See Ancient Greek Education.

Did lesbians come from the city of Lesbos?
Lesbos is an island, not a city. Women who love women are associated with the island only because Sappho, who wrote passionate love poems to both women and men, came from it. Ancient Greeks didn’t particularly associate the place with “lesbians” in the modern sense.

How respected were artists?
Unlike in most other societies, artists often signed their work. Even vase painters sometimes became famous. Sculptors could sometimes charge huge fees. They were sometimes criticized and attacked, but generally one can say that artists had higher status in Greece than in most other ancient cultures, where they were viewed as little better than servants.

I’m interested in Greek technology (building methods and inventions).
The Greeks were famously ingenious in devising various technical devices, but generally disinclined to apply them to practical use. The Romans were far more interested in practical engineering. You can study some of the most famous Greek inventions at the Technology Museum of Thessaloniki. Why did Greece spread so far west and south?
They made a deliberate effort not to let their poleis grow beyond a certain size, and sent out people to create new poleis in colonies.

Were they big fishermen because they lived on water?
They did fish a good deal, but seem to have preferred lamb and goat, judging by their writing.

Why do the men have to stay in the military until they are 30? Are they able to live with their wives or note? Do they care if they see their wives or not?
The Greeks you are referring to are the Spartans, whose customs were viewed as rather bizarre by other Greeks. They thought that men would be more manly separate from women. Men could only visit their wives by sneaking out of the barracks, but this was thought to be good training for being sneaky soldiers and spies in the military. Clearly they did sneak out successfully or the Spartans would have died out.

If they questioned religion, did they have temples for the Gods and goddesses? Did they worship them like other cultures did their gods and goddesses?
The Greeks differed a great deal among themselves, from fervent faith to deep scepticism. Some ceremonies, like the annual renewal of Athena’s cloak in the Pan-Athenaic procession to the Parthenon, were as much civic celebrations of political import as religious rites. But what makes the Greeks distinctive from a very early date, is the tendency of numbers of them to criticize their own gods and myths, and to try to consciously invent new philosophies which other peoples would have tried to derive from their gods.

In some of the first Olympics is it known whether or not the winners of events won medals back then? Or was it just something like honor?
No medals, just an honorary olive wreath. If you were a really successful athlete, a statue might be made of you, or a poem written praising you. Some were fed at public expense after their victories. But the ideal at the Olympics was sport for sport’s sake (and the honor of the gods).

I would like to know more about Greco-Roman wrestling.
See The Ancient Greeks and the Sport of Wrestling.

I’m interested in how come the Greeks repeated the names of places and how they handled it. Ex: Argos (2), Thebes (2).
I don’t know. Maybe they liked the thought of recreating a famous city. There’s a Troy, Idaho not far from here, and an Athens in Georgia. The habit seems to be a persistent one.

How large is Greece today (land area)?
It has an area of 50,959 square miles if you include all the islands. For more on the geography of modern Greece, see the Greek Embassy’s Facts About Greece page.

Why did they look at art from a realistic view?
Probably because they admired themselves so much. No civilization put so much emphasis on the importance of the human form; so it was probably inevitable that their sculptures would become more and more realistic. You can find a good history of Greek sculpture in the Britannica, with lots of illustrations showing how the works became more and more realistic, but the Britannica doesn’t try to explain why they did.

Other useful sites:
University of Pennsylvania: Ancient Greek World
Tufts University’s Perseus Project
Fordham University’s list of online texts and other resources.
Oxford University’s Classics Resources on the Web
Maecenas: Images of Ancient Greece and Rome.

The Role of Women in Ancient Greek Art
Another set of links

Questions about the Hebrews and Judaism

Warning: religion is always a controversial subject, and the information given below will depart in many cases from what believers in particular faiths accept as true; however it is representative of a good deal of nonsectarian modern scholarship. An outline of Jewish history:

Would you go over in more detail the periods during which the Jews were in exile or when they ruled themselves?
Good question. It’s always difficult to know how much of this to emphasize in class because some people learn it in Bible study classes and others have never encountered it before. The periodic exiles of the Jews are important for three main reasons: they help to explain how the religion evolved, they have become symbols of oppression and liberty for other peoples in many lands, and they help to explain current conflicts in the Middle East.

There is a chart on p. 27 of Duiker that gives you some of this, but I looked ahead further to put these early experiences in a larger context.

  • About 4,000 years ago the ancestors of the Hebrews were wandering nomads. Biblical tradition says that Abraham, the founder of the line, came from Ur, but we cannot be sure that this was the Ur located in Mesopotamia. There are no records of these people except for the traditions laid down in the Bible many centuries later. The story says that Abraham entered Canaan briefly, and God promised him that his descendants would inherit the land. This is the earliest mention of a claim which was to prove controversial right down to the present day. It is the religious basis of the tradition that Israel belongs to the Jewish people because it was promised to them by God. Of course a long string of other inhabitants, from the Canaanites and Philistines to the modern Arabs who call themselves “Palestinians,” have disagreed. This era, up to the entry into Egypt, is known as the era of the Patriarchs (fathers): people like Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph.
  • The Bible further says that some group of these nomads entered Egypt, perhaps around 1720 (this date is much disputed), to escape relief from a long-lasting drought, and found themselves enslaved permanently and treated badly by the Pharoahs. No trace of them has been found in any digging or record in Egypt (unless the troublesome nomads called “‘Apirus” in Egyptian records are the Hebrews, and most modern scholars doubt this–the dates are wrong). However, the general outlines of the story are plausible: it would make sense to go to the regularly flooded Nile valley to get food when one’s own territory was parched, the Egyptians did enslave foreign peoples, and the name “Moses” is a distinctively Egyptian one (there were Pharoahs with names like “Tutmoses,” for instance). However, the pyramids had been built long before this: only in Hollywood movies did the Hebrews work on the Pyramids.
  • The book of Exodus, the second book of the Bible, tells the sensational story of Moses, and how he led the Hebrews out of captivity, purportedly with the assistance of ten devastating “plagues” inflicted on the Egyptians, including turning all the water in the land to blood and killing all the eldest children of the Egyptians. Forewarned, the Hebrews were able to spare their own children by sacrificing a sheep instead and smearing the blood on their thresholds so that the angel of death should pass by their homes. The ritual of Passover commemorates this pivotal event in Jewish history. If anything like this really happened, it probably occurred some time between 1300 and 1200 BCE. This is the first “exile,” the one which molded Jewish conceptions from then on and with which so many oppressed peoples, including African-American slaves, have identified.
  • The Bible then says that the people leaving Egypt followed Moses to Mt. Sinai, where God made known his will by giving them not only the Ten Commandments, but a huge body of law later known as the Torah. Modern literary scholars suspect that much of this law was inserted into the Torah relatively late, by later generations who felt that certain traditions were so important that they must have been known even back in Moses’ time. It is possible to trace many historic layers in the Hebrew Law, but that is a topic for a more advanced class.
  • The Torah says that because the Hebrew people sinned by doubting that God would rescue them and turned to the worship of other gods, including a golden calf, God punished them by making them wander for forty years in the wilderness (presumably in the Sinai Peninsula), until that whole generation had died. No traces of this sojourn have been found in the Sinai despite repeated attempts: many modern historians suspect that the truth may have been a much shorter transit of the Sinai Peninsula by far fewer people than are depicted in the Bible. Only their children were to be allowed to enter into the “promised land” of Canaan. People still frequently use the metaphor of “wandering in the wilderness” today to talk about some unpleasant form of exile or ostracism. In Jewish history, this experience of exile in Egypt followed by wandering in the wilderness becomes a metaphor for the struggle to discover God’s will and follow it; but it also becomes a lesson on the importance of compassion for others. Again and again the Hebrew Bible stresses the importance of being kind to foreigners, the poor, etc., and reminds the Jewish people of when they were wandering outcasts themselves.
  • Although the Bible depicts a massively successful invasion and conquest of Canaan by the Hebrews (perhaps around 1240 BCE), there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that they slowly infiltrated the land and never conquered all of it, settling mostly in the higher hill areas, while groups like the Philistines continued to dominate the richer lowlands. Many modern scholars believe that the group coming out of Egypt actually united with various peoples already living in Canaan, and adapting their own Egyptian-influenced beliefs to those of the Canaanites, forged a new religion and created the “twelve tribes” which make up the traditional Hebrew nation. Little can be said for certain about this period, which is traditionally known as the period of Judges, after mighty leaders like Samson and even a woman–Deborah. These “Judges” seem to have been popular tribal leaders or heroic individuals rather than legal officers.
  • Around 1050 BCE a monarchy was established and Saul chosen as the first king. The history books of the Bible (in the Hebrew Bible, they are part of the “Prophets”) are written from a pro-priestly, generally anti-monarchical perspective. Saul is depicted as a madman who is succeeded by the brilliant figure of David. It is David, not Saul, who becomes the ancestral figure that Jews look back to for political inspiration. Christians trace Jesus’ ancestry back to David for reasons we will explore later, so they too have paid great attention to this figure. He is said to have been a poet and musician (he is given credit for the whole collection of Psalms in the Bible, though modern scholars doubt that he was responsible for many of them, if any). Although he is portrayed as being especially blessed by God in the Bible, he is also portrayed as a sinner: the seducer of Bathsheba, the murderer of her husband. He is a richly complex figure. One relatively painless way to learn more about him is to rent the videotape of the feature film “King David” starring Richard Gere. It is the closest Hollywood has ever got to being faithful to Biblical history.
  • The ambivalent attitudes of the historians who wrote the story of the Hebrew monarchy mean that this is the only national history which takes a critical stance toward almost all of its rulers, including the most beloved ones. The editors, probably living in the Babylonian Captivity (see below) blamed the monarchy for the loss of the Promised Land and the enslavement of the Jews; and they tell the story with an eye to its tragic conclusion.
  • David’s successor was his son Solomon, a wealthy monarch who supposedly married 300 wives and had many more concubines, yet who was regarded as wise and pious early in his reign when he built the temple in Jerusalem. This is another pivotal event in Jewish history because once the priesthood at the temple became well established, they denounced all other regional shrines and tried to centralize all sacrifice in the capital city. Although they never entirely succeeded, this was a hazardous move because it could have meant that if the Jews were ever separated from the Temple, they would have to cease being Jews.
  • In 930, after Solomon’s death, the land was divided into two rival and often warring kingdoms: Israel in the North, with Samaria as its capital and Judah in the south, with the capital remaining in Jerusalem. The Bible depicts these monarchs almost exclusively in terms of whether they enforced the worship of the Hebrew God (whose name may have been something like “Yahweh”–the name later became too sacred to pronounce, and only the consonants were written down). The writers refer those curious about other details of this period to histories of Israel and Judah which have long since vanished. Archeological evidence shows, however, that a king like Omri–a rather obscure figure in the Bible’s account–was internationally famous as a great ruler for generations after his death.
  • Some of the more radical modern scholars have suggested that Yahweh was never the completely dominant God of the Hebrews: that his worshipers struggled against formidable odds to establish him at the center of the nation, more often failing than not. This would explain a good deal that is otherwise puzzling about the account of this period after 930; but the Bible depicts the people as “turning away” from a deity long worshiped by their ancestors.
  • The Assyrians gradually conquered much of the Middle East in a long series of extremely violent campaigns in the 8th century. Samaria fell to them in 722, and the entire northern nation of Israel was subjected to their often merciless rule. It is assumed that much of the population was enslaved and many must have converted to the religion of their masters. These are the “ten lost tribes” of Israel.
  • The Neo-Babylonian Chaldeans conquered the Assyrians and seized their empire, seeking to expand it further. After many attempts, they finally seized Jerusalem in 587 BCE and took most of the inhabitants into captivity in Babylon. This second exile is known as the “Babylonian Captivity.” The writers who experienced it compared their lot with that of their ancestors in Egypt, and a powerful body of writing and thought developed which defined their people as wanderers seeking a home in the land promised them by God.
  • Cut off from the now-destroyed Temple in Jerusalem, the priests became radically less important. Figures like prophets and historians became the most important figures to keep alive the flame of Yahwism. They compiled and edited the histories of the past (the “Deuteronomic History”) to explain why a people supposedly chosen by God could have suffered such a disaster. But an important side-effect of their effort was to move the religion decisively away from an ethnocentric, nationalistic religion to a more abstract one which could be followed anywhere. It was at this point that the Torah (law) replaced the Temple as the heart of Judaism. Once again, exile becomes a defining experience for this people.
  • The resurgence of Babylon was short-lived, because they were conquered by the insurgent Persians in 538, under Cyrus, a ruler who is depicted in the Bible as having been hand-picked by God for the purpose of returning the exiles to Judah. Some (but probably not most) did return to this land their parents had come from, but which was a legend for most of them. These would have been the hard core of Yahwistic believers; and from this time on we do not hear of renewed tendencies to worship “false” Gods. These people, now known as “Jews” after the land and tribe of Judah, now identified themselves completely with their religion, forged in exile. After a long delay, they tried to rebuild the Temple, but it was a pale shadow of its former self, and Judaism continued to flourish in people’s study of the law, in their daily lives, and was no longer exclusively tied to the Jerusalem Temple.
  • One controversial but plausible thesis says that it was under Babylonian and Persian rule that the Jews were first exposed to Zoroastrianism and its beliefs in heaven and hell, a satanic opponent to a good God, angels, and much else that was adapted by them into the classic Judaism that we know today. Such ideas circulated at first mainly among the scholars later known as Pharisees, who created a popular form of Judaism which had little to do with the ceremonial Judaism of the Jerusalem Temple priesthood.
  • The returned exiles did not return to freedom: they were still subject to the Persians, who were relatively benign rulers who interfered little in their internal affairs.
  • In 331 Alexander the Great arrived with his troops as he swept through the Middle East on the way to conquer all of the world that he knew about. After his death in 320, his kingdom was subdivided into various Macedonian-ruled monarchies, with the Jews falling under the sway of the Ptolemaic dynasty ruling Egypt and other lands in the area.
  • Eventually Syrian monarchs seized control, and the Greek/Syrian ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes tried to impose a strictly Greek culture on his realm, attempting to suppress Judaism by outlawing it and by defiling the Temple. Astonishingly a group of Jewish rebels led by the Maccabees succeeded in driving him out and freeing the land in 142 BCE, placing power back in Jewish hands for the first time since 587. Their reign, though brief, whetted the Jewish appetite for independence, and reinforced tendencies toward nationalism which have been revived at various periods in history. One incident from their victory of Antiochus is commemorated at annually at Hanukkah. (For more information, see Aish HaTorah’s Chanukah Site.)
  • This brief period of independence was ended by Roman armies under Pompey in 63 BCE, when Judea became a Roman province. (It was also sometimes referred to as “Palestine” after the Philistines who also lived there. Because the Philistines were bitter historical enemies of the Jews, this explains why Jews general reject the name “Palestine” for their homeland.) The Romans were generally quite tolerant of other religions, and the Temple priests generally aligned themselves with Roman policy; but this alienated them from other Jews who resented Roman domination. Popular Judaism continued to develop richly among the Pharisees, who were busily creating classic Judaism as we know it, including slowly compiling what was to become the official collection of Hebrew writings we now know as the Bible.
  • Roman tolerance of other religions was bounded, however, by their insistence on loyalty to Rome and the Emperor. They knew that the Pharisees were expecting a figure called “the Messiah,” who would lead a triumphant war of liberation against the enemies of the Jews and restore the royal line of David. Such hopes could only be seen as treasonous by the Romans. In a reckless attempt to impose loyalty they erected the Imperial eagle on the Temple, outraging many Jews. When the latter tore it down, they triggered a violent reaction: essentially war between Rome and rebellious Jews, which lasted from 66 to 73 CE; and whose most famous outcome was the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, leaving standing only part of the wall surrounding the Temple Mount, which is known today as the “Western Wall” or “the Wailing Wall,” where pious Jews from all over the world come to grieve and pray.
  • Centuries later, in 687, triumphant Muslims built the shrine of the Dome of the Rock on the site of the old Temple, declaring it to be the site of Muhammad’s miraculous ascent into heaven (as well as the site of the near-sacrifice of Ishmael by Abraham, for in their version of the story Ishmael replaces Isaac). In modern times this site has been much contested, and during the Cold War some thought that World War III might begin there. Even in very recent years people have died because of conflicting claims to the Temple Mount; and it is one of the most intractable issues dividing Jewish Israelis and Muslim Palestinians. According to Messianic Jewish beliefs, the Messiah will appear here and the Temple must be rebuilt to bring in the Messianic age; but to do so they would have to tear down the Dome of the Rock, defiling the third most sacred spot in Islam.
  • The end of the Temple marked the end of the priesthood as well. The Pharisees with their radical but popular ideas of an afterlife in Heaven or Hell, angels, resurrection, and a Messianic restoration of Jewish rule in Jerusalem (to be extended eventually to the whole world, with all nations worshipping the Jewish God) triumphed in the vacuum left behind by the death of “official” Judaism. Despite the hostile portrait made of them in the Christian scriptures, the Pharisees were genuinely popular, responding to the needs of the people whom they served. The Judaism of the next two thousand years was to be the Judaism of the Pharisees.
  • In 132 CE radical Jews rebelled against Rome again under a fanatical and charismatic leader named “Bar Kokhba” (originally Simeon Bar Kosba) who many believed to be the long-expected Messiah. They were initially successful in some battles, but Rome was determined to crush the rebels, a remnant of which committed suicide at the fortress of Masada after Bar Kokhba himself was killed in 135. This mass suicide has often been cited in modern times by Jews as an example of the determination to fight back which has been necessary for them to survive as a people. Other Jews criticize this use of Masada as ultimately self-destructive. This is a complex subject, but you should know that the word “Masada” has powerful meaning for modern Jews.
  • What about Jesus? you may be wondering. There is no clear reflection of his existence in the many Jewish writings that survive from this period. Several figures were presented as possible Messiahs during the first and second centuries, but by far the most successful of them among Jews was Bar Kochba. If we did not have the Christian scriptures, we would have no record of Jesus’ brief career among the Jews at all.
  • The Romans drove the Jews out of Jerusalem and in so far as they could out of Judea altogether. This third exile is known as the “Diaspora” and was to be a powerful force throughout the next two millennia. Armed with their sacred books, their hopes, and their memories, the Jews scattered over much of Asia, northern Africa, and around the Caribbean, eventually winding up in such far-flung places as Russia and India: but always they were tied together by the Bible and by the Hebrew language in which it was written. It was no longer their spoken language (Jews in Judea spoke Aramaic, Jews elsewhere Greek); but it was studied as an ancient scholarly language in which God had spoken. In modern Israel the language has been revived and restored to daily use.
  • The result of this troubled history has been that much of what makes classic Judaism Jewish was forged in the suffering of exile. The creation of the modern state of Israel, mostly by secular Jewish settlers at first, has enormously complicated the relationship between this history and current events; but much that you will read in the newspapers about crises in the Middle East can only be properly understood by understanding this background from many centuries ago.

Other Questions about the Hebrews and Judaism

So, In Judaism, has the Messiah not come yet?
Every once in a while a small sect of Jews proclaims that a particular rabbi is the Messiah, but most Jews do not accept such claimants. The answer is yes, the Messiah has not come yet for orthodox Jews.

What is the significance of the Minora?
It’s “menorah”–a seven-branched candleholder which is described in Exodus 25:31-40, to be used in the Temple. You can read more about menorahs at

How many wives did King David have?
Three: Michal, Abigail, and Bathsheba. Although this is not many compared to his son Solomon (300 plus 600 concubines), each of these marriages had its controversial and sensational aspects which you can read about in the Bible.

What did Hebrew people wear for clothing?
See Ancient Hebrew Clothing.

Is “being Jewish” a heritage alone without practicing the religion.
Yes, many people born of Jewish parents regard themselves as Jews while observing few or none of the religious customs associated with the Jewish religion. The vast majority of Jews in Israel are non-believers, for instance. Many Jews confine observe Passover, eat traditionally Jewish foods like bagels and lox or maintain a distaste for pork without adhering to other Jewish laws, much like nominal “Christians” who go to church only on Easter and want to be married in church, but otherwise ignore Christian customs and observances. The difference in the Jewish case is that Jewishness is seen as being genetically inherited, while it is possible to convert to the religion of Judaism.

What were the Jewish burial beliefs or customs?
Are, please. They are still around, though some are more ancient than others. Characteristics of Jewish funeral practice include sitting with the body while it is being prepared (it must never be left alone), washing the body, dressing it in a simple white shroud, burying it in a simple wooden coffin. The prayer called Kaddish is recited for thirty days after burial. One year after the death of a parent or close relatives, a candle is burned in their memory and the Kaddish repeated. Some communities veil the tombstone for 12 months and perform an unveiling ceremony at the end of that time. For more details see Life, Death and Mourning on the Judaism 101 site.

Was Hinduism born long after Judaism?
Neither religion has a really sharp, clear beginning point. It is often said that Hinduism and Judaism reached their classic forms around the same time, in the 5th century, BCE.

How did the prophets change Judaism, in detail? What gave them the power to say that there was only one God?
This is a big question, and is best studied in a textbook like Stephen L. Harris’ Understanding the Bible, which I mentioned in class. But it’s worth noting that the Bible mentions “false” prophets as well as true ones. There were many people who evidently felt God was speaking to them. Those whose teachings were accepted eventually by most Jewish are labelled authentic prophets. The prophets were not the first Jews to promote monotheism, though they were particularly fervent about it. Some prophets emphasized that God would move non-Jewish leaders like Cyrus to rescue the Jews, and even thought that God would physically transform the earth to reestablish them in Jerusalem. This emphasis on the unlimited power of God led naturally to believing that he was a universal god, and not just the god of the Jews.

I want to know if there is a Jewish calendar, and what is different about it?
The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, based on the phases of the moon, and it moves in relation to the solar year. For a detailed explanation see Jewish Calendar. The calendar starts with the traditional date for creation, so that in the fall of 2000 Jews are observing the year 5,761.

What are some of the similarities between Judaism and Christianity?
Both believe in the same God, accept the Jewish Bible as in some sense the “word of God,” and have generally similar attitudes toward moral issues. Many Jews and Christians believe in life after death, in Heaven or in Hell, and in the existence of angels and demons. Christianity historically began as a variant form of Judaism, so it is only natural that the two should have much in common.

Why did the Jewish religion influence Christianity and Islam? Why is their history so influential on today’s society if they were such a minor culture?
Christianity evolved out of Judaism. Jesus and his early followers were Jews, and probably considered themselves Jewish reformers rather than founders of a new religion. The Christian Bible incorporated the Jewish Bible, so the bulk of Christianity’s most sacred writings are Jewish as well. Muslims also regard the Jewish and Christian scriptures as important, and many passages in the Qur’an resemble passages in the Bible. Although Muslims would deny it, many outsiders see their religion as partly modelled on and growing out of Judaism and Christianity.

What is the major difference between Judaism and Christianity?
Jews don’t believe that God would ever have a literal son, or take on human form. God is one, indivisible, and nonmaterial. Except for the tiny minority that became Christians in the first century and a few later, the vast majority of Jews have never accepted Jesus as the Messiah. They do not accept the belief in original sin, nor the notion that anyone has to die to take people’s sins away.

What is the Christian view of Jews?
There is no one Christian view–there are many: all the way from bigots who consider them cursed to others who revere their faith and take part in Jewish ceremonies. Many modern Christians acknowledge that Jesus and his disciples were Jews who practiced an innovative form of Judaism. An interesting book by a Jewish scholar about Jesus’ Jewish roots is Geza Vermes: Jesus the Jew.

What is the main difference between Muslims and Jews? How do their beliefs tie together?
We’ll learn more about this when we study Islam. The main difference is that Muslims believe the Jewish revelation in their Bible is incomplete and distorted (though they consider it a sacred book nevertheless, and accept Jewish prophets as Muslim prophets), and that the recitation of the Qur’an by Muhammad was necessary to make clear the will of God. Their chief similarities: strict monotheism, they worship the same god, prayer, fasting, rejection of images. Also facing toward a sacred location when praying (Jerusalem for Jews, Mecca for Muslims). Belief in angels, devils, heaven, hell (all of these only for Orthodox Jews).

At what time did Jews change to believing in one God?
It is now impossible to determine even roughly when the ancient Hebrews became monotheists.

What countries have Judaism as their main religion today?
Only Israel is dominated by Jews, but there are more Jews in the United States than there are in Israel. Jewish communities are scattered all over the world, in places as far-flung as India.

Why did the Jews think that Israel was such a sacred place?
Most people talk about their homeland as “sacred.” Listen to typical American politicians invoking God’s blessing on the U.S.A. But Jews, having been deprived of their homeland by the Babylonians, had special reasons to identify their continued survival as a people and as a body of believers with continued life in Israel. Judaism was forged in exile, so it naturally emphasizes the importance of home.

Why they don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead?
They, and other non-Christians, and some Christians, do not find the stories of Jesus’ resurrection in the Bible credible for many reasons, which I can’t go into in detail about here. But Jews believe that the resurrection of the dead will take place only with the coming of the Messiah (an event which has not happened yet), but that the Messiah himself, once born, will never die. For a Jew, the story of Jesus’ resurrection would not prove him to be the Messiah; instead the very fact that he died is taken as disproof that he was. There are special instances of dead people being revived in the Biblical stories of Elijah and Elisha, but these are very special miracles.

Difference between orthodox and non-orthodox Jews.
Reform Jews (very popular in the US, but not in Israel), do not accept the Bible as God’s literal word, and do not follow all the laws of the Torah. For more information see Movements of Judaism.

What is the connection between Yahwism and Judaism?
“Yahwism” is the term non-Jewish scholars use to describe the early forms of worship which were later to evolve into Judaism. It labels beliefs that concentrate on the God named “Yahweh.”

What conflicts did Jews have with other nations?
There are many fine histories of the ancient Israelites which go into this subject in detail. One of the most influential is Martin Noth’s History of Israel.

What is the difference between the religion in Palestine and in Israel?
In modern times, “Palestine” is what Muslims call “Israel,” so the short answer is that Palestinians are mostly Muslim, Israelis mostly Jewish (though there are Christian Palestinians and Muslim Israelis).

How did they perform their worship?
They prayed, rested on the Sabbath, and (while it existed), performed sacrifice at the temple. There are many religious observances in Judaism, but the religion does not focus on ceremonies and worship as much as other religions do, but on behaving in obedience to God. Judaism is a way of life.

Is Judaism an ethnicity or race, besides being a religion?
Modern biologists reject the concept of “race” as empty. Most modern ethnic Jews do not practice the Jewish religion, but they tend to have certain shared genetic traits that show many of them to be related. There are two major ethnic groups among Jews: the light-skinned Ashkenazim of Northern Europe, and the darker Sepharidim of Southern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Jews differ so much among themselves, however, that speaking of a Jewish “race” makes no sense.

What are the Jewish beliefs in the afterlife, and have they changed?
Modern non-orthodox scholars believe that the ancient Hebrews did not believe in Heaven and Hell, but instead in a sort of gloomy afterword called Sheol where everyone went. There is very little about an afterlife in the Jewish Bible. Only very late (perhaps around the 2nd century BCE) did any significant number of Jews develop the belief in an afterlife, and even today, it is not a very important part of Jewish belief. You can see the shift taking place in the first century, when the conservative Sadducees rejected the popular belief in the afterlife promoted by the Pharisees. The focus of Judaism is on living a good life now, not on preparing for a future existence. Most Jews who believe in heaven believe that righteous people of other religions can also go there. For more information see Olam Ha-Ba: The Afterlife.

What is Passover all about?
It is a commemoration of the escape from exile in Egypt, and an occasion for family reunions and celebration, in some ways like Thanksgiving. For more details see Pesach: Passover.

Why did the Jews choose to depict their kings as deeply flawed?
We don’t have any strictly political histories left. Such books are mentioned in the Bible, but no copies have survived. Instead, what we have are descriptions of Israel’s history from the point of view of priests writing during and after the fall of the divided kingdom who are trying to prove that the sufferings of the Jews were caused partly by the failures of their leaders. “Why did God allow such horrible things to happen to his Chosen People?” is the question the history books in the Bible are designed to answer.

Are there any records written by nonreligious figures that tell us more about other issues separate from the religion?
The earliest detailed writing about the Jews and their history is by Josephus, who tried in the first century to explain Jews to the Romans, but he based his history on the Bible. Only concerning his own period does he draw on other sources. Only the slightest of clues in scattered letters and inscriptions tell us anything about earlier Jewish history from a non-religious perspectives.

How did the Jews last so long? Why weren’t they wiped out from all the times they were conquered and exiled over the millennia?
Pious Jews would say God preserved his Chosen People. The fact that their religion evolved to center on beliefs enshrined in the Bible rather than in ceremonies to be performed in the Temple made their religion portable. In times of exile and oppression, the Torah gave Jews a sense of identity. Conforming to it made them more Jewish, and helped them survive as a people.

How did the constant exiles affect Jews as a culture; did many move away from religion?
The majority of the Jews exiled to Babylon clearly did abandon their beliefs, but since Judaism was forged in exile, in some ways it reinforced the beliefs of the faithful. It is interesting that conservative religious Jews make up a small (though influential) minority in modern-day Israel. Jews were more united in their beliefs when they were still in exile.

How closely related, if at all, is Judaism to Lutheranism?
Lutherans share the same reverence for the Hebrew Bible held by all Christians; but in some ways Martin Luther and other Protestants tried to strip away what they found recent and non-Biblical about Christianity. The result was to make it more like Judaism: rejecting veneration of saints, monasticism, Purgatory, the authority of the Pope and of priests, etc. Protestants tend to draw far more on the “Old Testament” (Hebrew Bible) than Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians.

What proof is there of Noah and the Ark and flood? Is there archaeological evidence to support it?
The only geologists who accept the idea of a universal flood in ancient times are those who think the Bible requires them to believe it. Other scientists generally reject the story of the Bible as improbable if not impossible. For details, see the Talk.Origins Archive.

If the Jews were slaves in Egypt & suddenly left, why is there no record of it? Wouldn’t Egypt have suffered?
There are several possibilities. Some scholars think there were far fewer Hebrew slaves than the Bible depicts, and that the small number leaving would have gone unnoticed. The Egyptians certainly had lots of other slaves, so they would not have had a labor shortage. The Bible is quite accurate in depicting Egypt as the employer of last resort when hard times hit–lots of people emigrated there. But the Bible depicts a spectacular, miraculous departure whose absence from Egyptian official histories is hard to explain if you take it literally.

If it was OK for males to have up to 4 wives & as many slaves as he wanted, then what was considered adultery?
The four-wives limit is Muslim, not Jewish. I mentioned it as a comparison. Later Jews (by the time of Jesus, and much earlier) were monogamous: one man, one wife. However, the early patriarchs married more than one wife and did have children by their slaves, which seems not to have been disapproved of, though the law does not specifically endorse sex with slaves the way the Muslim Qur’an does. Anyway, having sex with a woman who was neither your wife nor your slave would be adultery. For a woman, having sex with any man not her husband was adultery. Jewish law is unusual in punishing men and women equally for adultery, though the definitions differ in the early times. When they become monogamous, men and women are subject to the same restrictions.

What are the rules of the Sabbath?
Essentially you are supposed to avoid work or travel on the Sabbath and engage in prayer and praise of God. The details are not spelled out in the Bible, but in the teachings of generations of rabbis who have worked out exactly what “work” is, and what may and may not be done. These can be very elaborate and this isn’t the place to go into them. You can read more on this topic at Here.

Why didn’t God want the Jews to create any kind of art that represented religion? Shouldn’t he have wanted to be recognized?
I can’t speak for the mind of God, but historians think that the main reason the Jews rejected religious imagery was that the law was a kind of insurance against worshiping other Gods. All other gods had images: if you aren’t allowed to make images you can only worship the one god that doesn’t–the Jewish God.

What is an awl, which the master pierced his slave’s ear with?
Just what you might think: a sharp spike with a handle for punching holes in leather, etc. You can buy them at any hardware store.

Do Jews have any rules for reaching Heaven like Christians do? Ex. You must believe in Jesus to reach Heaven.
Like Christians, different Jews believe different things. Not all Jews believe in Heaven (see Documents of Jewish Belief for various views), and many Jews in Jesus’ time did not. Generally, the path to Heaven is obedience to the laws in the Torah, including circumcision, the dietary laws, monotheism, etc. Some Jews believe you have to be born a Jew, others say you can convert. It is interesting to note that Paul talks about rabbis who would travel long distances to make a convert in the 1st century; and we know a lot of Romans converted.

I’m a little fuzzy on the lending $ subject. If the Christians said the Christians’ borrowing money from the Jews didn’t have to pay the Jews back, why did the Jews have high interest rates? If the Christians didn’t want to pay it back, how would the Jews get the $ and high interest rates anyway?
Imagine you’re a Jewish banker. X percent of your Christian clients refuse to pay you back and you can’t take them to court to get the money (the court scene in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Veniceis an antisemitic fantasy–nothing like it was remotely legal). So you have to charge everybody more to cover your expenses. Any business with high losses has high prices. Now imagine you’re a Christian businessman needing loans. You know that if you fail to repay your loan, no Jewish banker in the area will ever lend to you again. Unless you are headed for bankruptcy, you repay your loans because you need to maintain your credit, so you can continue to get more loans in the future.

Why are Jews not able to collect interest from other Jews?
The Law expects Jews to treat each other more or less as an extended family in this regard: you don’t charge your brother interest. It’s one of many laws aimed at softening interpersonal relations, making things easier on people.

I am a little confused about the exile of the Jews. Were they kicked out of Babylon or Jerusalem?
Taken away from Jerusalem by the Babylonians, to Babylon.

How do the Jews and Muslims both have a claim on Jerusalem? I’m not really clear on that.
There were no Muslims until the 8th century CE, but for most of the time between then and the mid-20th century, they were the chief inhabitants of Israel and Muslim rulers ruled over the land for most of that time. They tend to regard the Jewish claim to the land as going back much too far–almost 2,000 years–whereas they were in possession much more recently for the bulk of that time. Both sides view Jerusalem as a city sacred to their religion. Conservative Jews consider it the capital of Israel rather than Tel Aviv, but liberals are careful not to make that claim, because they don’t want to exacerbate Muslim-Jewish hostility. You’ll see in the news from time to time strong words exchanged when some American politician or other figure says that Jerusalem is the proper capital of Israel.

How are the Jews and Muslims related through Abraham?
Muslims claim that Arabs are descended from Ishmael, the first son of Abraham, whereas both Jews and Muslims claim that the Jews are descended from his son Isaac. Jews generally do not accept the Arab claim to be descended from Abraham.

Do the Jews still want to be separate from everyone else today?
Some very conservative Jews try to lead a separate existence within their own communities; but the vast majority of Jews mix freely with others. Indeed, half of all American Jews now marry non-Jews.

I saw a picture of a Jewish Haggadah called “The Birds’ Head Haggadah.” The human figures in the margins had bird heads with distinct beaks. Do those figures have any connection with the Egyptian human figures with bird/animal heads?
Probably not. This Medieval manuscript was written much later than any possible contact with Egypt. No one is sure why this was done, but it may have been to avoid depicting real living creatures, in order to obey the commandment against creating images of living things.

I’ve heard, on several separate accounts, that Judaism claims only Jews may enter and live in the “promised land.”
You may be thinking of the “Law of Return,” the law in Modern Israel which states that any Jew can claim citizenship in the country whereas other people have to apply for immigration and naturalization. Many non-Jews live in Israel, including Christians (many of them Arab Christians) and Muslims. The Bible states that eventually all the world’s peoples will come to worship in Jerusalem–so Judaism has a universalistic side to it.

Do you think that the Dome will ever be destroyed by the Jews?
I have no idea. Only a tiny minority of Israelis want to destroy it, and they are generally rejected by the vast majority of the population. More orthodox Jews feel that the Messiah will destroy the Dome and rebuild the temple, and that they must wait until he comes.

After the Jews were taken over by the Babylonians, did they build any other temples to worship at?
Although there are some modern places of Jewish worship called “temples” they are not to be compared with the Temple. According to Jewish belief, it is unique, and can only exist in Jerusalem, on the Temple Mount.

What is the religious significance of the Wailing Wall?
The Western (or “Wailing”) Wall is the one remnant of the foundation of the old Temple. It symbolizes the suffering of the past and the hope for the future. Orthdox Jews go there to pray for the restoration of the Temple in the days of the Messiah, but more generally, Jews hold it sacred because it is a general symbol of all the sufferings the Jews have endured and the promise of greatness they still cling to despite all that suffering.

Why don’t they just build the Temple around the Dome of the Rock?
The Bible is very specific about the location and shape of the Temple. It has to be in one piece–no holes–on top of the mount where the Dome is. The tiny percentage of Jews eager to rebuild it are also extremely traditionalist: they want it to look exactly like the original Temple. Anyone flexible enough to work around the Dome is not likely to want to rebuild the Temple at all.

I don’t understand the importance of Bar Kochba . . . just that he was thought to be a messiah? That people were claiming to be the messiah? Reinforcement that there was only one TRUE messiah . . . what?
Historically Bar Kochba is important because the rebellion he led in 132-135 CE prompted the final crushing of Jewish power in the Holy Land and greatly accelerated the diaspora: the scattering of Jews outside of Israel. Theologically he’s interesting because he illustrates the tendency of Messianic figures to emerge around that period. There were several. Bar Kochba was the only one to gain the endorsement of a leading rabbi (Akiva ben Yosef); but in the end he was remembered as a defender of Judaism, not as Messiah. For Jews he is a symbol of resolute resistance to anti-Jewish oppression. The suicides at Masada by his followers have been a somewhat ambiguous symbol for modern Israelis of their determination to resist their enemies. Most Jews admire his battles more than the suicidal conclusion of his campaign, while acknowledging his total dedication. That said, it is clear that he was not representative of all Jews in his time: many of them were probably shocked by him, and few followed him as Messiah. “Bar Kochba” was his messianic title. His original name was “Simeon Bar Kosba” or “Kosiba.”

How long did the battle involving Masada and the Romans last?
Most of the time it was a siege rather than a battle. The siege lasted 73-74 CE. For more about Masada, see the Jewish Virtual Library.

When did the change come from Hebrew to Jew. What’s the connection & what are the differences?
The two words mean the same thing in some contexts, but in history we tend to call the people who lived before the formation of the states of Israel and Judah “Hebrews.” Since the “Israelites” were taken off into captivity by the Assyrians and vanished from history, the only Hebrews left were the inhabitants of Judah, and “Jew” is an English word based on a Hebrew word meaning originally “inhabitant of Judah.” Hebrew is, of course, still the name of the language in which the Jewish Bible was written, and which is today the official language of the modern state of Israel.

I’d like to know more about how Judaism influenced Christianity.
We’ll cover some of this when we discuss Christianity later.

I’d like to hear about the King Solomon Legends (mines, temple, gold).
The references in the Bible to Solomon’s wealth led to many legends about him among Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Modern interest in “King Solomon’s Mines” was stimulated by H. Rider Haggard’s fantastic novel of that title which built on racist ideas that indigenous Africans could not have been responsible for the astonishing ruins of Great Zimbabwe. See the film: Africa: A History Denied, for more detail.

What about more info on the similarities between the Canaanite and Jewish religions?
I talked in class about the similarity of their altars, their use of “standing stones,” and the names of their gods. For more information, an entertaining film to watch is part one of the “Testament” series, available at MMR. You can get extra credit for watching it and writing a report on it, as you can for any of the films listed in your packet.

Who decides who’s allowed to write the Bible?
It’s more a matter of deciding what preexisting writings are allowed into the Bible. The Bible was compiled over many centuries as more and more writings came to be seen as authoritative. The Jewish Bible is divided in three parts of decreasing age. The Torah, or Law, is the oldest. The Prophets are next, then everything else under the miscellaneous label the Writings. The final decision about what would be included in the Bible and what excluded was made by Jewish scholars at Jamnia (Greek name, the Hebrew is “Jabneh”) in the first century (Esther was the last book to be admitted), but the list of official books (the “canon”) was pretty well set for a long time before that. Catholics accept 7 books into the “Old Testament” which were eventually rejected by the Jews for their Bible; most Protestants use the same list as the Jews.

I would like to know exactly how accurate the Bible is as a historical reference.
There is no end to the arguments over this question. Again, the “Testament” series suggests a sort of consensus of modern non-fundamentalist scholars; but there is no real precision available. There is simply no independent evidence for the vast majority of events reported in the Bible, and its authors had every reason to reinterpret the past in the light of their beliefs. In brief, conservatives tend to seize on every bit of evidence that might support the Bible’s accuracy, and skeptics do the opposite, with the majority somewhere in the middle. It would be reasonable to assume that the more recent periods discussed in the Bible are more accurately depicted than the most ancient ones. You might take Humanities 335 (The Bible as Literature) as an introduction to this very complex topic.

More about the ten lost tribes of Israel.
The term “lost” misleads many people into thinking that there is some mystery about their loss. They were captured by the Assyrians and merged with them. However, many legends grew up, inside and outside of Judaism, about the eventual reemergence of these tribes from exile. Mormons believe that their descendants became the American Indians. There have been many other fanciful theories about them; but most historians are agreed that they were “lost” only because they lost the war and were enslaved.

Why can they beat their slaves–not to death–just to hurt? When was slavery abolished? Were their slaves Jews?
All slavery cultures allow the beating of slaves because slaves have very little motivation to obey their masters except fear: they aren’t being paid. The Jewish law is meant to moderate this practice. Neither Judaism, Christianity, nor Islam abolished slavery as a religious act at any particular point. The inhabitants of various countries abolished slavery, whatever their religion, mostly in modern times (the last two hundred years or so).

Why help your enemy?
Your enemy is not necessarily God’s enemy. Kindness is to be encouraged, even when it isn’t easy.

What about the Star of David? How does it tie in with the Jews?
Although the six-pointed star was used by Jews two thousand years ago, it was also used by Christians in the Middle Ages. It was made the official symbol of the Jews in Prague in the 17th century, to become near-universal as a symbol of Judaism in the 19th century. There is no Biblical authority supporting it. The Nazis forced Jews to wear the yellow star, which they adopted as a proud badge of heroism.

What are some examples of modern Jewish art?
Because of traditional prohibitions against figural art, few Jews excelled in the arts until modern times. Marc Chagall is the most famous of modern Jewish artists (he painted the ceiling of the Paris Opera and murals in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, among many other works), but huge numbers of contemporary artists are of Jewish origin, though many of them do not practice the Jewish religion. Many of the leaders of the abstract expressionist movement were Jews. I haven’t found a good list of modern Jewish artists on the Web, but there is a good survey of earlier Jewish art. For an amazing list of modern Jews who have contributed to modern popular culture,look here.

Where was the Temple located? I want to know more about it.
See the Temple Mount site at

I would like to learn more about the Philistines.
There is a good article about them in the Encyclopedia Britannica online. Interestingly enough, the abuse directed toward the Philistines in the Bible led 19th century rebels to use it as a term of disapproval in regard to bourgeois values, so that to be a “philistine” in modern times means to be an unsophisticated person from the Middle Class–terminally “un-cool.”

How did the people of that time have the knowledge to build such great domes? If the work is all made out of stone, would men do the work–in today’s society cranes do the work. Stone is not light.
First of all, the ancient Hebrews didn’t build domes. The only domes I showed you were on much later houses in Jerusalem–I pointed them out as being the one thing that was much later in style. They did have draft animals like oxen, and in the Roman period had excellent pulley systems and muscle-powered cranes. I’ll show you a picture of one in the Roman lectures.

I do not think that I had ever heard that Cleopatra was Greek and not Egyptian. I found that interesting.
The Ptolemies were descendants of Greek followers of Alexander the Great who adopted the Egyptian religion and lifestyle. There is some information about Cleopatra in the film “Who Was Cleopatra?” which you can watch for extra credit.

I would like to know more about why the Jews were treated so badly.
I assume you mean in post-Biblical times. Much of this is outside the scope of the course, and there is no unbiased interpretation of history, but here’s my brief take on anti-Jewish persecution through the ages. The authors of the Christian scriptures used Jewish prophetic writings to differentiate the new faith from those who remained faithful to the Torah and created a negative view of Jews which was continuously reinforced throughout the 1900-year-long period of Christian dominance in Europe. The prophets were pious Jews denouncing their fellow Jews for failing to be sufficiently and truly Jewish; but their words were twisted by Christians and others to turn them into denunciations of Judaism itself. The Qur’an contains negative comments about Jews too, but until recently Muslims have been less harsh toward the Jews in most places. In the Middle Ages Christian discriminatory laws drove Jews out of most professions except banking and some forms of trade. When Jews prospered at the few jobs they were allowed to hold, they were the target of jealous anger by Christians. Recent research, however, has also shown that anti-Jewish prejudice was expressed only sporadically throughout the Middle Ages, with long periods of time seeing peaceful coexistence of Christians and Jews. In periods of crisis, as in the Crusades, the Black Death, and the Protestant Reformation, things got worse for the Jews. Since the Christian scriptures had placed blame specifically on the Jews and their descendants for having killed Christ, fanatics would often use them as scapegoats when they couldn’t deal with their own problems. Many Jews still living can remember being chased down the street by young Christians throwing rocks at them, calling them “Christ killers.” Antisemitism was widespread in Europe and America before Hitler came along (study the Dreyfus case in France some time); he only capitalized on a preexisting prejudice. Religion created the prejudice, but once it was deeply engrained in European society, it could be manipulated even by an atheist like Hitler.

What is the origin of Islam and why are they constantly fighting with the Jews?
We’ll learn about the origin of Islam later in the semester. Muslims have not always fought with Jews; but as you’ll see the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, has some rather harsh statements in it about Jews, though Judaism as a religion is admired. They are closely related religions, founded by people who were ethnically very closely linked; but this closeness has often led them to feel their differences more keenly. Modern Muslim/Jewish conflicts mostly stem from the displacement of Arab Muslim inhabitants of Palestine (the “Palestinians”) during the creation and settlement of the modern state of Israel a half century ago. Often these conflicts have little to do with religion (most Israelis are not religious). Recently tensions have eased somewhat, with the Muslims and Israelis signing a series of peace agreements. As we’ll see later, during the Moorish era in Medieval Spain, Jews and Muslims often lived peacefully together.

What is the main religious text for the Jews?
The Torah.

What is the Torah?
There is some information about this on the first page of the readings from the Hebrew Bible in Reading About the World (p. 33). The short answer is that the Torah is the law, the first division of the Hebrew Bible, consisting of the first five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books are often referred to by Christian scholars as “the Pentateuch.” Since the Torah is only the first of three parts of the Hebrew Bible it is incorrect to use the term “Torah” as if it were synonymous with “Bible.” The other divisions are the Prophets and the Writings. Christian Bibles ignore these divisions and arrange some of the materials slightly differently, but one can safely say that the Christian “Old Testament” is equivalent to the Jewish Bible, except that the Catholic Bible has seven additional books (plus a few odd additions to various books) in it which were originally written in Greek, not Hebrew. Every orthodox Jewish synagogue has a hand-copied scroll of the Torah which is kept in a special holder and read from during services.

Are there any more similarities between the Torah and the Bible?
See above: the Torah is the first five books of the Jewish Bible and of the Christian Bible alike.

I was very surprised to learn how similar the Christian & Jewish creations stories are.
They are identical for the reason that the Jewish book of Genesis is the first book of the Christian Bible. There is no separate Christian Creation story–though John 1 contains an interesting theological interpretation of the Jewish story. In fact, the whole “Old Testament” is the Jewish Bible. Add on gospels, espistles, and Revelation, and you have the Christian Bible. It’s not a different book–just the older book plus additions.

If the first five books of the Jewish Torah is in the Bible, why are Christians not Jewish even if we use the same Bible? Are the Christians the real deal? Or are they the rebels that branched off Jewish beliefs?
Remember those extra books: they contain the beliefs that make Christian different, and they also contain radical reinterpretations of the Jewish Biblical texts. Christians and Jews read the “Old Testament” quite differently from each other. Christians would claim to be “the real deal” and Jews would regard them as having “branched off.” It all depends on your point of view.

Is there a major difference between Jewish and Christian Passovers?
Passover is a specifically Jewish observance, not a Christian one. Some modern Christians observe some kind of ceremony on Passover to express solidarity with the Jewish heritage which lies in back of Christianity, but that is far from traditional.

Why were Jewish laws so specific? Were there more laws that were left out? Why is there such a difference between “man” slave and woman?
Historians believe the laws evolved over a long period of time, and that the present Torah is a compilation of many different law codes, some of which went into fine details of special concern to the priests. There is a large body of commentary on the Jewish law in the Talmud which fills in many details not spelled out in the Torah. No ancient culture treated men and women as equal.

Why did Jews & Christians become so exclusive when prior religions wren’t?
The key is monotheism. If you believe there is only one God and that it is evil to worship any other god, then you are likely to be pretty exclusionary. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are alike in this regard.

I would like to know more about the sacrifices.
The Book of Leviticus contains very detailed prescriptions for various sorts of sacrifices. Leviticus 16:20 begins the account of the famous sacrifice of the “scapegoat,” which became a model for Christian theology. Since later Judaism prohibited all sacrifices outside the temple, the sacrificial rituals have been suspended for almost 2,000 years. All ancient peoples seem to have felt that the gods were pleased (or appeased) by gifts of meat, wine, oil, etc. Certain sacrifices in which the entire offering was completely burned up are called offerings of “holocaust.” This term was used with dark irony by the Jews in the Nazi concentrate camps of their own fate: being burned to ashes. Most non-Jews had never heard the term before and assumed it was strictly associated with this attempt at exterminating the Jews. Later usage extended it to other disasters like “nuclear holocaust”; but originally it is just a certain kind of ritual offering.

Was the Ark of the Covenant the one from “Raiders of the Lost Ark”?
Yes, but the movie was pure fantasy, based on the fact that in the Bible it is said that when a non-priestly man reached out to steady it on its cart he was punished by being struck down dead by God. The movie built on this image of a box “charged” with power; but the original point was to reinforce the lesson that only priests should touch the Ark.

Is the Phoenician alphabet the origin of the phonetic system of learning to read that we have in the U.S. today?
“Phoenician” and “phonetic” have nothing to do with each other, but the Latin alphabet we inherit does descend in a pretty straight line from the Phoenician one.

Everyone says Ahab was a good king with a bad press agent. What great things did he do?
That may be overstating the case. His father Omri was so powerful and influential that other nations referred to the rulers of Israel for long afterward as “the house of Omri.” Ahab ruled over a large territory and revived an alliance with the Phoenicians (the prophet Elijah hated this because he saw alliances with non-believers as bad–and Ahab’s queen Jezebel set up a temple to the Canaanite god Baal). He defended Israel against Assyria, and was finally defeated in battle against it. So he was a success as a ruler, valiant but doomed as a general, and hated by the religiously conservative groups who opposed his openness to alliances and other faiths. 1 Kings 16-22 portrays Ahab as a violent and greedy ruler with a wife so wicked that her name became a label for evil women ever after–Jezebel. The story of Naboth and his followers is usually cited as an example of Ahab’s tyranny. Whatever the truth about Ahab, we need to keep in mind that the Bible authors are generally interested in just one question: is the ruler an exclusive worshiper of the Jewish God, repressing all rival religious practices? Flexibility like Ahab’s is seen as the worst possible sin in a monarch. His name was borrowed by Herman Melville for his whale-obsessed Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick.

Something I am interested in is the role women played.
You’ll see some of this in the readings; but I can also recommend a good recent book in the library: Carol L. Meyers: Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context.

If there is no archaeological evidence of the Jews in ancient times, how can we know they existed?
Many references to places, styles of architecture and ways of life in the Bible can be substantiated through archaeology. By about 600 BCE there is scattered evidence of Jews in Israel, growing greater as you approach the turn of the millennium. The Testament film series assesses the evidence well.

Who’s Yahweh?
The Jews eventually considered God’s name too sacred to pronounce. Since ancient Hebrew had no written vowels, the “sacred tetragrammaton” was rendered through four characters which may be translated as “YHVH.” It is fairly certain that the first syllable must have been “yah” because there are so many sacred words that contain that element, like “HalleluYAH” (“praise God”). Modern Jews sometimes imitate the ancient practice of spelling “God” by using only the consonants and an asterisk: “G*d.” He is also referred to both in English and Hebrew as “the Lord” and one substitute name using the ancient tetragrammaton is “Jehovah.” Modern Jews generally do not use the term “Yahweh” (the “W” is pronounced like a “V” as in German (German scholars first developed this theory; the “J” in “Jehovah” is also pronounced like a “Y” in German and Hebrew), but Christian scholars often do. Yahweh is simply God’s name; he is the same god worshiped by the Christians and Muslims.

I would like to learn more about what beliefs are the same for all religions.
Although people often assert that the essence of all great religions is the same, this usually reduces itself to a general belief in a supernatural realm and a handful of common-sense moral rules. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are genetically related, with each later one building on and reinterpreting its predecessors; but they have precious little to do with–say–Zen Buddhism. Many religions share similar views on mystical experience, but some (like Sunni Islam and mainstream Protestantism) discourage mysticism. What religions have in common is that they are patterns of belief and conduct which we choose to label with the term “religious.” Westerners often regard Confucianism as a religion, for instance, though in its origins it is more of a philosophy, later given religious attributes through contact with traditional folk beliefs and Buddhism. In certain interpretations of certain varieties of Hinduism and Buddhism it can be asserted that they even reject the concept of gods, to look toward a “higher” more abstract spiritual realm which has no divine personality. Thus one occasionally hears the term “atheist religion.” We’ll be comparing religions all semester long, and you can make up your own mind what you think holds them together.

What kind of music were the psalms set to?
If you mean the original music, we have no idea what it was like, though there is a compact disc in the library (La musique de la Bible révelé) which contains the melodies which one scholar claims she has deciphered from the Hebrew text–however these are not very persuasive. There is no knowing whether ancient Hebrew music sounded like–say–modern Arabic music. Beginning in the Middle Ages, however, the psalms were repeatedly set to whatever style of choral music was in fashion at the time. Some of my personal favorites are the settings of Sweelinck, a Dutch Protestant who used a French translation of the texts.

More about the Dead Sea Scrolls
You’ll find lots more about them at However, a couple of points that are more controversial are worth making. One early best-selling book on the scrolls argued that Jesus may have studied at Qumran or been influenced by the thinking of the Essenes. Some scholars continue to argue variants of that position. Even more controversial is the argument that Qumran was not an Essene site at all and that the Essenes were not the authors of the scrolls. Scholars taking this position argue that Judaism was much more varied than conservative scholarship is willing to allow, and that the unorthodox teachings found in some of the scrolls reflected the thought of groups in Jerusalem itself, who hid the scrolls in the desert during the wars with Rome. They argue that the concept of “mainstream” Judaism as we know developed later, in the diaspora. At the least it can be said that the existence of the “Essene” texts found at Qumran show the kind of extreme variety that existed in contemporary Judaism which could lead the early Christians to believe that their radical reinterpretation of religion was a legitimate one. There was evidently a great deal of ferment and jockeying for position around the turn of the millennium.

Why were Christians selective in picking from the laws the Jews wrote?
Jesus was known to have taken a radical approach to some of the laws (particularly on diet and Sabbath observance, though he did align himself with some other rabbis (teachers) in doing so. If he claimed, as the gospels imply, to be bringing a new revelation from God, he would have had to reject many Torah traditions, including the notion that the law was closed. Confusingly, he is also quoted as endorsing the entire body of the law down to its finest details. These conflicts may reflect tensions within the early Church, which influenced the writing of the gospels. Paul (whose writings were the earliest to find their way into the Christian scriptures and which influenced the gospel writers) went further, consigning huge tracts of Jewish law to the dead past and viewing parts of it almost as a curse (his language is highly ambiguous–even contradictory–on this point). Christians subsequently have argued endlessly over which of the ancient Jewish laws they should observe. Paul gave them permission to abandon circumcision and the dietary laws, and that pattern has generally been followed (the American practice of circumcising males is not based in religion except for Jews and Muslims). Some of the laws dealing with observance of the Jewish Sabbath were transferred to the observance of the Lord’s Day, later called the Christian Sabbath.

Where did Catholicism branch off from ancient Christianity?
First, it is important to be clear that Catholics (and many protestants) do not consider the Catholic Church to have “branched off” from early Christianity at all–they consider most other branches of the faith to have “branched off” from them. Second, remember that for most of the past 2,000 years the vast majority of Christians in the world has consisted of Roman Catholics (the second largest group being Eastern Orthodox). Extremist modern Protestants sometimes characterize Catholicism as “un-Christian,” thereby dooming millions of believers over thousands of years to Hell as deluded heretics. This is an issue fraught with tensions, historically culminating in vast wars and widespread persecution.

From a modern secular perspective, it is impossible to know precisely what the earliest believers believed and whether what they believed matched what Jesus taught. A great deal of ingenious scholarship has gone into trying to retrace the development of the early Church; and many scholars conclude that “pure” Christianity is unattainable, that already by the time Paul and the gospel writers influenced by him were writing, the Christian community had so thoroughly “mythologized” Jesus that his original teachings were no longer recoverable. This approach is especially associated with the German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, whose writings during the middle of the 20th century continue to influence much work on early Christianity today, including the work of the radical “Jesus seminar” which receives considerable publicity in the press. For much more detail on the early evolution of the image of Jesus, see the PBS Website “From Jesus to Christ.”

Officially, the Catholic Church considers that it was founded by St. Peter himself, Jesus’ chief disciple, and that he was the first Pope. Few outside the Catholic Church agree. Most historians suggest that the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome was a result of the split between the Eastern and Western halves of the Empire in the fourth century CE. In this view, the Catholic Church would have evolved in the power vacuum left behind by the fall of Rome to barbarian invaders in the mid-fifth century. This is a vast topic, needing far more study than can be engaged in here. At any rate, no one should say “Catholics are not Christians” without being aware that this is taken by all Catholics and many Protestants as a gross and ignorant piece of bigotry.

What are the differences between various Bibles?
There is a brief introduction to this topic on p. 33 of Reading About the World. For a thorough survey you should take a course like Humanities 335: The Bible as Literature. But a few additional comments may be useful here. The Hebrew Bible as we now know it was finally assembled and fixed in its form slightly after the time of Jesus. Thus not everyone agreed with what should be considered inspired scripture when he was alive, at least not among the “Writings,” the third division of the Hebrew Bible. Jews living outside of Judaea had developed the “Septuagint,” a Greek translation which incorporated many additions, including seven whole books which were not in the Hebrew original. The early Christians seem to have relied a good deal of the Septuagint and translations like it. Many of the passages Matthew cites seem to come from Greek translations rather than from the Hebrew original. Thus the early Christian Church was faced with a dilemma when it realized that it had endorsed as “inspired” a version which often differed strikingly from the traditional Hebrew text. Their solution was to consider both versions independently inspired, and to include the Greek additions as “deuterocanonical”–not in the original Bible, but nevertheless valuable. Even the original edition of the Protestant King James version of the Bible contained the “extra” books, though they are omitted in modern editions. Some of the most popular tales in the Middle Ages, influencing art, architecture, literature, and even music, come from these deuterocanonical books (Protestants tend to call them “apocryphal”) especially the tale of Tobit and Susannah and the elders (a modern opera based on the latter story was performed here at WSU in the spring of 1998). Modern readers often enjoy the book of Wisdom.

An intriguing theory has been put forward concerning the dispute of the Samaritans and “Orthodox Jews.” The Hebrew Bible claims that the Samaritans were non-Jews who moved into Samaria after its conquest by Assyria and got the religion all wrong. The Samaritans claim that on the contrary they adhere to the original form of Judaism which accepted only the Torah as sacred; and that the now “orthodox” faith is an adaptation which developed in the Babylonian exile. It is impossible to prove one side or the other of the argument at this point, but it is interesting to speculate about.

What is the difference between the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?
It is stated in the story of the Fall that if Adam and Eve had eaten of the tree of life they would have become like gods, living forever. By eating the tree of knowledge of good and evil they gained (or were cursed by) an awareness of guilt and sin. In mythological terms, the Tree of Life is an explanation, parallel to that in the Epic of Gilgamesh, of why humans are not immortal. Eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and you gain the knowledge of good and evil (a sense of morality–and guilt); eat of the Tree of Life and you would seem to gain eternal life, free from any sort of death.

Why were there two different creation stories?
When scholars a couple of centuries ago noticed that there were apparent inconsistencies in Genesis, notably in the first two chapters and in the story of the flood, they speculated about the causes of these discrepancies. The standard explanation that evolved is known as the “four-source” hypthesis which states that the Torah resulted from the editing together of four originally independent traditions known as Jahwist (J), Elohist (E) (after the two earliest names given God in the Bible), the Deuteronomist (D), and the Priestly (P). According to this theory–which is accepted in some version or other by the majority of non-fundamentalist scholars–Chapter 1 of Genesis is by P, who was concerned particularly with ceremonial law (Sabbath observance in particular), followed by E’s creation at Chapter 2, Verse 5, concerned more with ethical issues. The striking inconsistency in the order of creation was glossed over by earlier readers and continues to be “explained away” by fundamentalists today; but it is widely considered one of the keys that enabled us to understand the evolution of the Bible as we have it. It is interesting to note that Hindu scriptures contain many varied and inconsistent creation stories, which seems to bother no one, since literalism is not a prominent characteristic in Hindu theology. Today many churches teach that each story has lessons to teach and reject the idea that the stories told in Genesis are scientifically accurate. The current Catholic Pope has stated officially that a belief in Darwinian evolution is not inconsistent with the Catholic faith, which shows how far “mainstream” theology has evolved in the past century.

Who besides Ishmael was Abraham’s second son?
Isaac, the ancestor of the Hebrews. Jews regard him am as far more important, and Ishmael as the ancestor of their old enemies, the Edomites.

What image from the story about the Hebrew creation narrative and the story of the Fall influenced later images of the Virgin Mary?
I asked this question to find out whether you’re reading the footnotes. See the last footnote to the Fall story.

Why were the Ten Commandments important?
The short answer is that the ancient Hebrews said they were important. They isolated them, repeated them, and placed them at the head of the body of law in the Torah, probably because they incorporate unique features of Judaism (Sabbath observance, monotheism, rejection of “idols,” and universal commonplaces accepted widely by all human communities: abhorrence for murder, theft, etc.

Why is God referred to as plural in the creation story, especially if Judaism is such a devoutly monotheistic religion?
This is one of the great mysteries of Genesis. God twice speaks of “us” as if he were referring to himself and some other beings. In addition, the ancient word for “God” used in the second creation story–“Elohim”–is a plural form treated as if it were singular. We can safely dismiss the theory that God is using the “royal we” (modern monarchs traditionally refer to themselves in the plural and politicians seem to have picked up the habit). No such pattern existed in ancient Hebrew culture, nor is it repeated later in the Bible. The Medieval Christian notion that God was referring to the Trinity is hopelessly unhistorical and un-Jewish. Any good Hebrew would have been scandalized by the notion of God having three “persons” or subdivisions. Jews and Christians alike have argued that since the creation story provides no clear account of the creation of the angels, he may be speaking of himself together with them; but modern scholars argue that angels were a relatively late intrusion into Judaism and are not treated in such a fashion elsewhere. The most radical interpretation is that at some early stage the Hebrews were not in fact monotheists and that these are faint traces of their old polytheism so ancient that they had become sacred and unchangeable even when the Hebrews developed the belief in only one god. There is some evidence that the early Hebrews were “Henotheists”–admitting that other gods existed but insisting that only their own be worshiped. The others were “false” but not necessarily unreal. At any rate, they did develop into absolute monotheists and the strange plurals in Genesis 1 and 2 remain to puzzle readers who find none of these explanations completely satisfactory.

I would like to know more about different theories about the relationship between men and women based on Adam and Eve.
If you are a believer in the literal truth of the Bible, the story in Genesis explains why women are subordinated to men, why women suffer in childbirth, why men have to dig in the fields, etc. In fact, some 19th-century preachers insisted that anesthetics should not be used by women in labor because the Bible commanded them to suffer in childbirth (but nobody seems to have argued against air conditioning in offices because the same text says that men will earn their living from the sweat of their brows). Both traditional Jews and Paul drew conclusions about the subordinate place of women from this story. The Catholic Church eventually developed the idea of the Virgin Mary as the “New Eve” just as Christ was the “New Adam” (a Pauline idea). Hence Mary is often depicted crushing the serpent of sin under her heel, as the story in Genesis “predicts.” Modern feminist theologians sometimes argue that the creation of Eve out of Adam’s rib makes her a more refined, advanced creature; or that her birth from his side suggests equality. The more radical among them have developed a great interest in the Jewish tradition referring to Adam’s “first wife”–Lilith, who is only rarely referred to in the Bible and does not appear in Genesis. In the Talmud (the classic Jewish commentary on the Hebrew Bible) she is treated as an evil creature; but modern feminists have made her into something of a heroine, a role-model for independent-minded women. Social historians view these stories as illustrating historical attitudes relating to the sexes. From a mythological point of view, many cultures have myths “explaining” why women are subordinated to men: this is the Jewish myth.

I would like to know more about women and whether there is anything for which they were admired?
This is a hot topic among modern scholars, though a still-stimulating analysis called The Woman’s Bible was published over a hundred years ago. Women are usually marginalized in the Bible, praised mainly as the bearers of important sons, but there are exceptions. Deborah, Jael, and Judith (in the Septuagint) are all military heroines who save their people. Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel is celebrated as clever, Ruth (not originally a Jew) loving and faithful, Esther courageous and beautiful. For more about Biblical women, see Carol L. Meyers: Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context.

What was the reason Judaism’s God made the Seventh Day for rest?
Genesis doesn’t give a reason except that was the day after God finished creation. Some modern scholars think the seven-day week derived from a lunar calendar in pre-Jewish times, and that the creation story was written to explain a preexisting weekly observance, but nobody knows for sure.

If Christians don’t celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday, why do calendars in the U.S. start with Sunday?
I don’t know; but it is interesting to note that many European calendars more consistently place Sunday as the last day of the week on the right-hand-side page. If someone would research the history of this anomaly I’d be grateful.

What does “coveting” mean?
Literally “envying,” in the sense of desiring to have what someone else has. Many interpreters feel this doesn’t refer to mere feelings of envy, but to the temptation to improperly take from someone else what is desired. Otherwise it would be an unusual prohibition because it would focus purely on feelings and not on actions, like the other prohibitions in the law.

Why couldn’t the Jews say or write God’s name?
They could write his name, but only using the consonants. At first this was a natural by-product of the fact that early written Hebrew lacked signs for the consonants, which were “understood.” Later Hebrew incorporated marks to signal what vowels were to be inserted, however; but by that time the original vowels in YHWH had been forgotten. Many cultures have “secret” names which must not be uttered aloud. The origin of this tradition is so ancient that it cannot be traced, but the Bible includes a tradition of God having revealed his name to Moses on Mt. Sinai. This story certainly underlined the sacredness and mysteriousness of the name. Some historians suspect that the distinction between “Elohim” and “Yahweh” simply developed from the fusion of two different streams of belief referring to God in two different ways; eventually the first became a common noun and the second a name.

How many different prophets were involved in writing the Bible (Old Testament and New Testament)?
The following books are attributed in the Hebrew Bible (what Christians called “the Old Testament”) to individual prophets: Amos, Ezekiel, Habakkuk, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, Malachi, Micah, Nahum, Obadiah, and Zephenaiah. It is not clear that these men actually wrote these books which claim to report their teachings; others may have recorded them. In addition, modern scholars believe that there are at least three “Isaiah’s” behind that vast compilation. Daniel and Jonah are about the prophets named but do not present themselves as being by those prophets. In the Hebrew Bible they are included in the Writings rather than in the Prophets, and modern scholarship dates them to a period long after the others. Other figures in the Bible are called prophets: notably Elijah and Elisha. Most of the Bible is not associated with prophets, and none of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) is. Although Jesus makes many prophecies, he is not labelled a prophet by Christians, though he is by Muslims.

I would like to know why the Jews thought nakedness was so bad.
Many–perhaps most–ancient cultures had some kind of taboo on nudity, probably created out of a sense of shame about the unruly organs they associated with the powerful, fearsome force of sexuality. We can’t know now why the Hebrews developed a hostility so much stronger toward nakedness than did–say–the Egyptians, Minoans, or Greeks; but it caused problems when during the Hellenistic period many young Jews wanted to participate in Greek athletic events, which were always performed nude (legend says so they couldn’t conceal any trickery during the competition). Since Jews were highly recognizable by their circumcisions when nude some of them underwent a painful operation to create an artificial foreskin so that they could compete equally in the games. This, of course, was abhorred by pious Jews. One of the most striking tensions in the art of the Western World has been the tension between the Judeo-Christian abhorrence of nudity and the Greco-Roman celebration of it. We will look at some of the results later in the semester.

Explain more about who wrote these items like the Law, Passover Haggadah, and such and how they were found; or were they just passed down and recopied for hundreds of years?
Again, only a whole course in the Bible could get into this; but some of the most ancient traditions must have been passed down orally previous to the invention of writing among the Hebrews. Scholars explain many of the inconsistencies in the story of Abraham by arguing that different traditions have been loosely welded together at a relatively late date. We know think that Jews had a written language fairly early in their national history, but whether the books of the Bible as we have them today represents their original form is very much open to dispute. What is clear is that after they came to be considered the sacred word of God great care was taken to make each copy as close as possible to the previous one. After the first century, copies of the Hebrew scriptures show remarkably few variants. The long period before that, however, is shrouded in mystery–or at least, in controversy.

I would like to know why the day begins at sunset rather than at midnight for the Jews.
Sunrise and sunset are logical markers, easy to recognize and universal. Since the observance of holy days like the Sabbath is eagerly looked forward to, it makes sense that they would begin at the earliest possible moment, when “day is done.” Muslims follow the same pattern. The New Year begins at sunset, not “midnight.” The concept of “midnight” is a relatively modern one, and the term doesn’t even make much sense with many modern people only beginning their evening’s rest then or later.

I want to know more about Jewish Holidays.
Yahoo has a great collection of links.

What are the seven deadly sins?
These are not Biblical. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church identified them as serious sins which were sufficient to damn your soul to hell if you did not repent and atone for them: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth (laziness). They are often carved as figures, usually female, on the fronts of churches. It is interesting that “sin” has been reduced in most people’s minds to just one: lust. It shows how much more interested we are in people’s sexual misdeeds than in–say–their overeating.

Have you read The Bible Code.
I haven’t, but I’ve read reviews of it and don’t think very highly of the methodology involved. The human brain is programmed to create patterns of significance out of randomness, and it is easy to trick ourselves into seeing hidden truths where none exist. Try following some of the links up in the Skeptic’s Dictionary article on the subject.

Is there a real garden of Eden? Are there pictures?
Of course Genesis suggests that if there were, we humans wouldn’t be allowed in. There is no widespread tradition of a specific locale identifiable with the Eden of the Bible.

I want to know more about the laws.
This is a huge topic. For those of you not interested, this is the last question covered in this section on Judaism. Here are just a few examples. You can read the rest in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy (there are a few scattered laws in Genesis, but they are mostly repeated later). I am quoting the King James Version because it is in the public domain:

Exodus 22:25. If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.
Several ancient cultures banned lending money at interest as immoral, including the Romans. Christians followed suit, but Jews were allowed to lend money to non-Jews. Thus began the tradition of Jewish money-lending, profitable to both Jews and Christians; but causing Christians to enviously caricature Jews as greedy. Some historians hail the Protestant acceptance of interest as one of the enabling factors for modern capitalism.

Exodus 22:31. And ye shall be holy men unto me: neither shall ye eat any flesh that is torn of beasts in the field; ye shall cast it to the dogs.
The Qur’an also forbids the eating of “road kill.” Animals must be butchered while alive. Kosher Jewish butchers and Islamic butchers have similar rules, which are sometimes presented as humane.

Exodus 23:10 And six years thou shalt sow thy land, and shalt gather in the fruits thereof: But the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lie still; that the poor of thy people may eat: and what they leave the beasts of the field shall eat. In like manner thou shalt deal with thy vineyard, and with thy oliveyard.
Some scholars insist that this must have been an idealistic law of priests ignorant of the realities of farming life; but some Jews have been documented as actually observing it, especially in modern Israel. It’s a sort of “super-Sabbath” law, later extended to a celebration of the 50th year as a “Jubilee” an extra Sabbath year at the end of 49 (7 X 7) years. The Catholic tradition of a twenty-fifth year Jubilee is a Papal invention which dates from 1300.

Genesis 23:19: Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk.
Puzzled rabbis “put a fence around” this mysterious law by prohibiting the mixture of any meat product with any dairy product. Orthodox Jews even keep separate kitchen utensils for cooking the two kinds of food. But archeologists have discovered in modern times that this is a recipe observed in a pagan ritual. The authors of the law were probably simply telling the Hebrews not to take part in this feast honoring other gods.

Exodus 25 includes extremely detailed descriptions of ritual implements, some of which are quite ornate: “33 Three bowls made like unto almonds, with a knop and a flower in one branch; and three bowls made like almonds in the other branch, with a knop and a flower: so in the six branches that come out of the candlestick. 34 And in the candlesticks shall be four bowls made like unto almonds, with their knops and their flowers. 35 And there shall be a knop under two branches of the same, and a knop under two branches of the same, and a knop under two branches of the same, according to the six branches that proceed out of the candlestick. 36 Their knops and their branches shall be of the same: all it shall be one beaten work of pure gold. 37 And thou shalt make the seven lamps thereof: and they shall light the lamps thereof, that they may give light over against it.”
Descriptions like this bulk very large in the law, and probably date from after the building of the Temple under Solomon. The “Tabernacle” described in this passage is a sort of scale model of the Temple, perhaps written by Priests who could not image any early stage in Judaism at which the Temple did not in some form already exist.

Leviticus 1:3 If his offering be a burnt sacrifice of the herd, let him offer a male without blemish: he shall offer it of his own voluntary will at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation before the LORD. 4 And he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. 5 And he shall kill the bullock before the LORD: and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood, and sprinkle the blood round about upon the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. 6 And he shall flay the burnt offering, and cut it into his pieces. 7 And the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire upon the altar, and lay the wood in order upon the fire: 8 And the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall lay the parts, the head, and the fat, in order upon the wood that is on the fire which is upon the altar:9 But his inwards and his legs shall he wash in water: and the priest shall burn all on the altar, to be a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the LORD.”
The ancient Greeks also “sacrificed” animals by roasting them, with the celebrants (here, the priests) consuming them while the hides and bones, with some fat, were burned up for the gods.

Leviticus 11: 2 Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, These are the beasts which ye shall eat among all the beasts that are on the earth. 3 Whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is clovenfooted, and cheweth the cud, among the beasts, that shall ye eat. 4 Nevertheless these shall ye not eat of them that chew the cud, or of them that divide the hoof: as the camel, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you. 5 And the coney, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you. 6 And the hare, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you. 7 And the swine, though he divide the hoof, and be clovenfooted, yet he cheweth not the cud; he is unclean to you. 8 Of their flesh shall ye not eat, and their carcase shall ye not touch; they are unclean to you. 9 These shall ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, them shall ye eat. 10 And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you: 11 They shall be even an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcases in abomination. 12 Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you.
This is just the beginning of the huge body of dietary law. Notice that many meats other than pigs are forbidden, including all rabbits, shellfish and eels. Many peoples have sacred, forbidden foods, but no people has so strongly identified itself with such food taboos. Forbidden foods are “treif,” permitted foods are “kosher.” Rationalist Jews, beginning with Moses Maimonides in the 12th century CE, have offered medical explanations for these taboos, but they probably stem from a wide variety of sources, not all strictly rational.

Leviticus 12: 2 Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall be unclean seven days; according to the days of the separation for her infirmity shall she be unclean. 3 And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. 4 And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled. 5 But if she bear a maid child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her separation: and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying threescore and six days.
Feminist critics point out that bearing a female child is considered more defiling than bearing a male one.

Leviticus 18:7 The nakedness of thy father, or the nakedness of thy mother, shalt thou not uncover: she is thy mother; thou shalt not uncover her nakedness. 8 The nakedness of thy father’s wife shalt thou not uncover: it is thy father’s nakedness.
The beginning of a long list of prohibited sexual relationships. This was greatly extended in the Middle Ages by the Catholic Church so that one theoretically could not marry even very distant relatives, or even people connected not by blood but by godparent relationships. Since most monarchs in Europe wound up being more closely related than religion technically allowed, Henry VIII was plausibly able to claim that his marriage to Catherine, who failed to produce an heir, was incestuous. The Pope disagreed, and that prompted the founding of the Anglican Church.

Leviticus 18:22 Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.
One of several prohibitions against male homosexuality. Lesbianism doesn’t seem to have been imagined as a possibility in many ancient cultures; it is not mentioned in the Torah.

Leviticus 19:9 And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. 10 And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger: I am the LORD your God.
This custom of allowing gleaning to the poor explains one of the incidents in the Book of Ruth. Modern Christians have used the term to label efforts to gather food for the poor. Charity toward the poor is a very strong tradition in Judaism, dating from the most ancient periods.

Leviticus 19:27 Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.
In other words, men shouldn’t shave or trim their hair. Some ultra-orthodox Jews still follow these fashions. Some pious Muslims also refuse to trim their beards. Sikhs are even more consistent in both regards.

Numbers 5:12 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man’s wife go aside, and commit a trespass against him, 13 And a man lie with her carnally, and it be hid from the eyes of her husband, and be kept close, and she be defiled, and there be no witness against her, neither she be taken with the manner; 14 And the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be defiled: or if the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be not defiled: 15 Then shall the man bring his wife unto the priest, and he shall bring her offering for her, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense thereon; for it is an offering of jealousy, an offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance. 16 And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the LORD: 17 And the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is in the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water: 18 And the priest shall set the woman before the LORD, and uncover the woman’s head, and put the offering of memorial in her hands, which is the jealousy offering: and the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that causeth the curse: 19 And the priest shall charge her by an oath, and say unto the woman, If no man have lain with thee, and if thou hast not gone aside to uncleanness with another instead of thy husband, be thou free from this bitter water that causeth the curse: 20 But if thou hast gone aside to another instead of thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee beside thine husband: 21 Then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman, The LORD make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the LORD doth make thy thigh to rot, and thy belly to swell; 22 And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot: And the woman shall say, Amen, amen. 23 And the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall blot them out with the bitter water: 24 And he shall cause the woman to drink the bitter water that causeth the curse: and the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter. 25 Then the priest shall take the jealousy offering out of the woman’s hand, and shall wave the offering before the LORD, and offer it upon the altar: 26 And the priest shall take an handful of the offering, even the memorial thereof, and burn it upon the altar, and afterward shall cause the woman to drink the water. 27 And when he hath made her to drink the water, then it shall come to pass, that, if she be defiled, and have done trespass against her husband, that the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot: and the woman shall be a curse among her people. 28 And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed. 29 This is the law of jealousies, when a wife goeth aside to another instead of her husband, and is defiled.
In this interesting ritual, instead of casting the accused adulteress into the water as the Code of Hammurabi required, she is tested by drinking a ritual potion. If her belly swells and her thigh rots, she’s guilty and may be killed; but if these miraculous signs do not occur, the jealous husband has to accept her back.

Deuteronomy 7:1 When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; 2 And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, [and] utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them: 3 Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. 4 For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly. 5 But thus shall ye deal with them; ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire. 6 For thou [art] an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that [are] upon the face of the earth.
This is the first occurrence in the Bible of the law of “the Ban” (Hebrew: cherem) which calls for the complete and utter destruction of an enemy cursed by God. There are various instances of its application in 1 Samuel, for instance in the incident in which King Saul is cursed for having dared to spare King Agag. In this sort of warfare, no prisoners are to be taken and the goal is the utter annihilation of the enemy people: men, women and children, though that is not clearly spelled out until later, in Samuel. There is no evidence that the Hebrews ever successfully carried out this sort of genocide; yet the same spirit infuses later Christian crusading attitudes and some Muslim jihads, both of which seem to have drawn on the Biblical tradition. Of course, the Jews themselves were to become the target of a secular variety of cherem under the Nazis. The priests who wrote these laws were obsessed with ritual purity and the danger of intermarriage with unbelievers came before any notions of human rights. It is well to remember that other passages in the Torah speak much more kindly of proper treatment of enemies.

So did the Jews forgive all the Nazi Germans that killed off millions of their people? Would the Jewish people help their enemies (Nazis) then? Or is that an exception?
The passages urging fair treatment of enemies probably refer to the personal enemies of individuals, not to enemy nations bent on destroying the Jews. There are plenty of passages in the Bible indicating that Jews are free to defend themselves and destroy their enemies if they can. Sometimes Christians cite Jesus’ words “love your enemies” as being superior to Judaism, but in fact this is a rarely observed commandment, and it is not entirely clear what it means. My main point in pointing out these passages is that it is an unfair cartoon of Jewish belief to say that they are always urged to hate their enemies.

Deuteronomy 6:14 Ye shall not go after other gods, of the gods of the people which are round about you; 15(For the LORD thy God is a jealous God among you) lest the anger of the LORD thy God be kindled against thee, and destroy thee from off the face of the earth.
The law often speaks ferociously about the danger of worshipping false gods, and it is this insistence on absolute adherence to the worship of Yahweh which underlies the entire Deuteronomic history (1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings).

Deuteronomy 22:8 When thou buildest a new house, then thou shalt make a battlement for thy roof, that thou bring not blood upon thine house, if any man fall from thence.
The Torah contains pragmatic safety regulations, this one relevant when people spent a good deal of time on top of their flat-roofed houses.

Deuteronomy 22: 9 Thou shalt not sow thy vineyard with divers seeds: lest the fruit of thy seed which thou hast sown, and the fruit of thy vineyard, be defiled. 10 Thou shalt not plow with an ox and an ass together. 11 Thou shalt not wear a garment of divers sorts, [as] of woollen and linen together.
Several kinds of mixing of diverse things are considered unclean for ritual purposes.

Deuteronomy 22:23 If a damsel [that is] a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; 24 Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, [being] in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour’s wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you. 25 But if a man find a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her: then the man only that lay with her shall die: 26 But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; [there is] in the damsel no sin [worthy] of death: for as when a man riseth against his neighbour, and slayeth him, even so [is] this matter: 27 For he found her in the field, [and] the betrothed damsel cried, and [there was] none to save her. 28 If a man find a damsel [that is] a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; 29 Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty [shekels] of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.
It is assumed that any woman being raped in the crowded town can be heard screaming for help; if no such scream was heard, then it will be assumed that the woman voluntarily had illicit sex and deserves to be stoned to death. Out in the country, however, she is given the benefit of the doubt. Note the rapist/seducer of a virgin pays damages to the woman’s father and has to marry her. His daughter’s virtue is considered a proud posession of the father, for which he should be compensated. If she had not lost her virginity, she would have been able to make a better marriage.

Deuteronomy 25:5 If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband’s brother unto her. 6 And it shall be, [that] the firstborn which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother [which is] dead, that his name be not put out of Israel. 7 And if the man like not to take his brother’s wife, then let his brother’s wife go up to the gate unto the elders, and say, My husband’s brother refuseth to raise up unto his brother a name in Israel, he will not perform the duty of my husband’s brother. 8 Then the elders of his city shall call him, and speak unto him: and [if] he stand [to it], and say, I like not to take her; 9 Then shall his brother’s wife come unto him in the presence of the elders, and loose his shoe from off his foot, and spit in his face, and shall answer and say, So shall it be done unto that man that will not build up his brother’s house. 10 And his name shall be called in Israel, The house of him that hath his shoe loosed.
This passage explains the story of Onan in Genesis 38, who refused to beget children on his dead brother’s wife but enjoyed having sex with her by using a primitive form of birth control. This pattern is known as Levirate marriage, and was sometimes resisted because a man had to beget and support children that were not legally counted as his, but as his dead brother’s. Although marrying one’s father’s widow is strictly forbidden, marrying one’s brother’s widow is mandatory. This pattern is followed in various other cultures, including among some Nigerian Ibos, as described in Buchi Emecheta’s 1979 novel, The Joys of Motherhood.

Questions about Sumer and Babylon

What the religion of Sumer was called. I mean was there just one religion in that land?
I doubt it had a name. There would have been the worship of Ishtar and the worship of Im-Dugud, but otherwise the whole collection of beliefs and rituals was probably just “religion.” In most cultures you can pick and choose between which religious traditions you personally devote yourself to.

How did Hammurabi come to power?
The easy way: he inherited the throne from his father Sin-muballit.

What did Gilgamesh have to do with the great flood?
Nothing directly; he just was told the story as an answer to his quest for eternal life.

Why is Gilgamesh mortal?
Because he’s human. The point of the story is to prove that even the greatest of humans is mortal.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, what was the point of all the loaves of bread?
See footnote 13 at the end of the selection.

Could you explain in the Epic of Gilgamesh why 6 days 7 nights?
The point is, can you stay awake for a week (7 nights)?

Can you provide more explanation about the Code of Hammurabi, specifically, laws 129-132?
I’m not sure what parts of these laws you’re finding difficult to understand. #129 is interesting because it punishes man and woman equally–rare in the ancient world. Note that the death penalty can be waived by the aggrieved husband or the owner of an adulterous slave. #131 concerns the rape of a bride-to-be. #132 is about suspected adultery. As in the Bible and in Islam, witnesses of the adulterous act are required to impose punishment. These restrictions have often been ignored, however, and women condemned on mere reputation.

Was everyone supposed to follow the Code of Hammurabi & how many years was it practiced?
Different parts applied to different citizens, as the reader notes. It was recopied for centuries after his time, so it was probably used over a long period.

If death was so terrible, didn’t they have remorse for killing animals simply to predict the future? Or so they thought.
They didn’t think of animals as being that similar to humans. Since they weren’t vegetarians they were killing animals for food all the time anyway–might as well tell something about the future from the entrails after doing the butchery. Seriously: most “sacrifices” were eaten by the priests or worshipers.

Could women have any businesses besides just wine-selling?
Aside from prostitution, I don’t know. I would be surprised if they didn’t, however. It’s interesting to note that in Elizabethan England beer was often sold by women, called “Alewives.”

Did Hammurabi make up the laws himself, or did someone help him?
Of course he claimed Shamash gave him the laws; but in fact they probably evolved over centuries and he just approved the code. We can’t know how much was original with him. It’s the first legal code we have, but there are bound to have been earlier ones.

How did the Sumerians get the connection between human sexuality and the prosperity of crops?
Agricultural peoples even before civilization were making this connection. They noted their own reproductive activity as analogous to that of their animals and plants and thought one could encourage the other.

Did the Sumerians believe in an afterlife or not?
Like many ancient peoples, including most ancient Greeks, they believed a vague sort of after-death state–a miserable existence surrounded by demons. They had no Heaven or Hell for humans.

I am unclear about the name “Sumeria.” Does it refer to the whole region, time, or just one group of people?
“Sumeria” is not a proper term at all. The people are called “Sumerians.” The civilization and place are called “Sumer.”

What exactly is the Code of Hammurabi?
The law code promulgated by the Babylonian king Hammurabi.

Who was the guy who wrestled the lions, and why was he important?
Gilgamesh. Important originally because he was a powerful king who built up the city of Uruk into a major power, but many myths grew up around him, including those told in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Were the Sumerians polytheists as much as the Greeks were?
I suspect they commonly worshiped even more gods than the Greeks, and they seem to have taken them a good deal more seriously.

How were the social classes different from each other & how were they distinguished?
I didn’t really talk about this much, but the main classes were rulers, priests and priestesses, business people, farmers, soldiers, and slaves. You can see the way in which Hammurabi’s Code discriminates against the poor when they run up against the powerful nobles and in favor of the nobles when they harm slaves: look at #196-201. That was the point I was trying to make when we ran out of time.

I would like to know more about how they learn from the lamb’s liver.
This practice is called “Haruspicy.” I don’t know much about the details in Sumerian times, but you can read a detailed account of the Roman practice online.

How is it known for sure that the dates in which these civilizations existed are accurate? Don’t they fluctuate as new findings occur? When was the Bible written?

This is a huge and complex question I can’t completely answer here. You’d need an advanced course in ancient history. But we have both written sources and archaeological measures. Yes, there is room for some fluctuation, but no doubt whatever among scientists that ancient Babylon long predated the existence of the ancient Hebrews, let alone the writing of the Bible, the very earliest parts of which were probably composed (if not written down) in the 11th century BCE, but many Biblical scholars believe the Jews learned the flood story while in exile in Babylon in the 6th century. The Bible was gradually assembled over many centuries.

I thought it was interesting how similar to the flood story was to the Genesis flood story. Is there a theory or explanation of this?
Fundamentalists dismiss the Gilgamesh myth and a distortion of the “true” story recorded in the Bible, but most other modern scholars consider that the Hebrews picked it up from their neighbors. A couple of scientists have been arguing lately that a vast flood at the end of the last ice age may have triggered the myth when an ice dam broke and released a deluge on the Middle East, later exaggerated in the imagination to a universal flood which covered the earth. One of the most important books on this subject is Frank Moore Cross’ Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel BS1171.2 .C76 in our library.

The exact classifications of the cultures. Do Sumer and Babyon fall under Mesopotamian? I’m not really clear. Which culture was Hammurabi?
Hammurabi was an Akkadian/Babylonian, but we study him as part of the culture which the Babylonians inherited from Sumer. Both Sumer and Babylon are located in the general area called “Mesopotamia” (“between the two rivers”).

Besides Mesopotamian myths relating to the bible were there other parts of the world relating to the Bible?
We’ll read some other creation myths which you can compare with the one in Genesis. There is a whole discipline called “comparative religion” devoted to tracing these sorts of analogies and relationships.

The fall of Hammurabi?
He didn’t “fall.” He died while on the throne, though fighting against various enemies.

I wonder how the Aztecs had the same story of the Goddess of the universe getting overthrown.
They were so distant in time and space from each other that it was probably a coincidence. Male-dominated stories like to make up stories about the necessity for subduing women.

One thing I’m not real clear on is the life of Babylonians and Assyrians.
It’s hard to know a lot about daily life, but you can infer certain things by reading the proverbs and laws.

I don’t fully understand the tale of Hammurabi and I was wondering if we could go over the small details of the story.
It sounds like you’re confusing the Epic of Gilgamesh with the Code of Hammurabi, so I’m not sure which you’re asking about. See me if you want to know more.

Why did the priestess and the military head have ritual sex? To prevent warfare?
He didn’t have sex with her as a military leader, but as political ruler. The idea was to encourage the prosperity of the nation by promoting fertility. Most babies died in infancy and crops often failed. You did all you could to keep things reproducing.

Did cuneiform evolve over a long time or did writers draw a picture and then turn it into cuneiform?
It evolved over a long time.

What social custom is referred to in the final Babylonian proverb in your book?
Read the last three words of the proverb. Take them literally.

Questions and comments about the agricultural revolution

Comments were split between those who said the comparison between hunter-gatherer and agricultural cultures societies was the most important topic and those who said the roles of women were the most important. Although I stressed the latter, for exam purposes it’s more important to know the broader patterns involved in the differences between the two types of cultures.

An earlier semester I had students write down answers to a slightly different question: “What was the most important influence of the agricultural revolution?” They also submitted questions about agriculture. Here is some of what they said and my answers to their questions:

Interesting [student] Observations About the Influence of the Agricultural Revolution

~I think that the most important influences of agriculture on civilization has been trade. Trade has a big impact on our world today. MP

~I think the domestication of animals is the most important. Once people learned that they could raise animals for food, they could harvest more meat than when they had to hunt, often unsuccessfully. CG

~The most important thing that it did was bring people together. PB

~Large quantities of food produced by systematic agriculture caused permanent living ==> CIVILIZATION. Living in cities produced effective and efficient use of food and eventually not everyone had to farm. Less time was spent than when they had to gather and search for food. KK

~I think the biggest effect of agriculture on civilization was the separation of men and women.
Although today, women’s roles are going back to being equal to those of men, in between the ag revolution and now there has been a definite difference. It all started when women took on the jobs that required being in one place for a long time. Some tasks were pottery, weaving, and cooking. These jobs may have been even tougher than those of the hunters, who were men. The men had to rely on the women for food most of the time because they seldom brought home food.
The different jobs for women and men carried on for a long time so I think that might have been the biggest effect of agriculture on civilization. CA

~The most important effects of agriculture on civilization was creating a situation in which a single strong leader was very desirable. To support large populations agriculture had to be coordinated, especially in areas which relied on irrigation and canals. Thus the need for a leader of definite power. EG

Questions About the Agricultural Revolution

Why did the ice age end?
We wish we knew. Scientists are struggling with this issue. Part of it for sure has to do with long-term fluctuations in the output of the sun which we still understand little about. A large meteor collision generating a lot of atmospheric dust might be enough to trigger an ice age in certain situations. Slight changes in global temperature can make huge climatic differences. Worry over global warming has focused a lot of attention on this topic.

Exactly where was the change from agriculture to civilization?
In Mesopotamia, along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, in what is now Iraq. Egypt may have been almost as early, and more and more we realize that agriculture was “invented” many times, in many places, rather than spreading from a single spot.

What were the first crops grown by people?
The earliest we’ve found so far are wild grasses, the ancestors of wheat and barley, on the borders of Iraq and Iran about 7,000 BCE.

What exact time was this revolution taking place? And where?
The agricultural revolution begins around 6,000-7,000 years BC in the Middle East and China. It develops gradually and spreads over many centuries. Every time a nomadic group settles down and begins farming, it is still taking place. It’s not a revolution in the sense of the old nomadic period ending one day and the new agricultural period starting the next. A short but vague answer is “the Neolithic age.”

Is BCE up to today’s current date or does it only come up to a certain time?
It covers exactly the same period as “BC.” It’s just a neutral, non-religious label for the dating system you’re already used to. “BC” becomes “BCE” and “AD” becomes “CE.” That’s all there is to it.

Did agriculturalists have any type of leisure time?
They tended to have much less leisure time than hunter-gatherers, who spend a great deal of time telling stories, singing, dancing, etc. Agriculture is hard work. Of course once civilization develops there is often an idle class enjoying itself while the commoners work in the fields. But in the Americas, where corn was grown, the Mayans and others had lots of leisure because their staple crop was highly nutritious and easy to grow. In some places you could grow three crops a year, with very little effort. Rice, on the other hand, is very labor-intensive, and tends to leave agricultural laborers with little time on their hands.

What’s going to be on the exam?
Ah, the perennial question. It would defeat the purpose of assigning readings and giving lectures if we were to single out only things that were going to be on the tests ahead of time, but you can get a good idea by looking at the bulleted list of kinds of questions I usually ask on exams on the Helpful Hints page, which contains many other useful guides to what you should be concentrating on. Remember to use your lecture outline. Before each test, you will be given a study guide. There will be no surprise questions on the tests. The sneaky goal of teachers is to teach you more than you could ever write down in a test.

Where does nomadic life still exist in the world today?
It’s dying out fast, but you can still find a fair amount in Central Asia and South America.

You said that there was no economy yet. Is that why trade was considered a consequence?
No money economy. Money is not in use at all before civilization–people barter food, precious stones, tools, or whatever they value. Some civilizations move beyond barter to money for special purposes without much of it filtering down the common people. Early Medieval peasants rarely saw any money, for instance. They would trade grain for flour, work for clothes, etc. Our modern sort of economy in which virtually everything is mediated by money is a late development.

Was there communication between nomadic groups or did the multiple agricultural societies develop independently?
Nomads of course encountered each other fairly frequently, and traded or arranged marriages between groups, and occasionally fought. Agricultural societies were often engaged in warfare, fighting of looting nomads and other agriculturalists, and engaging in trade. Agricultural itself seems to have developed independently at different times in different places.

What are the characteristics of a civilization?
I listed these the first day, but I know some of you hadn’t joined the class yet, so here they are: by definition–cities–and usually most of the following: complex society involving classes, state organization, specialization of labor, concentration of surpluses, literacy, monumental building, long-distance trade, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy.

As far as art and science are concerned, what were the biggest differences between hunter/gatherers and agricultural societies?
Nomads make small, portable art. Agricultural peoples can make more permanent “installations.” Agriculturalists make more fertility symbols (tying human fertility to that of crops), and create images of agricultural gods.

How did they make the first tools?
You can use a bone or a stick as a tool without modifying it, of course (see the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey). Deliberately sharpening a stick with a rock makes a primitive spear. The first tools that have lasted, however, were rocks. Certain kinds of rocks can be given a sharp cutting edge if they are banged at the right angle by another rock.

What age did they start a family? Was there marriage? How did they go about finding a mate?
We can’t really know much about preliterate, precivilized social customs. We can draw analogies with modern hunter-gatherers, but that’s risky. Given that people had very short lifespans back in those days it is unlikely they waited any past puberty to begin families, and in many cultures puberty and adulthood are pretty much synonymous. So say, mid-teens. There are a host of ways to get “married” around the world–and nobody knows which of them were in use back in those days. We do know that small hunter-gatherer bands learn early on that if they marry “out” they get healthier offspring. Often there is some kind of deliberate exchange by which people from group A try to marry people from group B.

What is a yama?
That’s “llama” (a double L in Spanish is pronounced like a “Y” in English). To learn more about llamas, click here.

Difference between having a culture and being civilized?
Early pre-humans and even animals can have cultures. A civilization has to have cities, literacy, monumental building, etc. It’s just a matter of definition.

Why do people settle down and stop hunting and gathering to lead a sedentary life if it is less healthy?
This is a very good but complicated question. The appeal of agriculture is that you don’t have to keep moving around. Nomads move because the diminishing food supply forces them to. When you discover you can plant and harvest crops, it has a certain appeal. But agriculture is addictive. Once you’ve gotten into growing crops, you really can’t easily go back to wandering because you have to stick around for the harvest, and you quickly lose the skills that allowed you to find all that good stuff when you were a hunter/gatherer. (There are a few documented examples where a changing climate or environmental degradation forced a settled agricultural people to go back to the nomadic life, but not many.) Although agriculturalists do more work on average than nomads, the work can be fobbed off on the slaves and laborers. Agriculture especially benefits people at the top of the social pyramid. Hierarchical agricultural societies seldom revert partly because the people at the top benefit by it so much and the people at the bottom aren’t able to strike out on their own. The early agriculturalists who migrated to settle in villages along the Tigris and Euphrates, digging canals and irrigating, would have died quickly if they had wandered off into the desert–there was nothing there to hunt or gather!

What are the problems with being an agricultural society?
See the paragraph above: inequality and much harder work come with agriculturalism, as well as these other points: susceptibility to attack, insecurity, disease from living amidst one’s own waste and with domestic animals, crowding, impoverished diet, risk of drought, flood, fire etc. destroying everything you’ve got and not being able to move on easily. The skeletons of early hunter-gatherers look stronger and more healthy than those of early agriculturalists.

When was the first known domestication of the dog?
The earliest archaeological evidence goes back to about 14,000 years ago; but a recent genetic study suggests dogs were domesticated much earlier, perhaps 100,000 years ago. For a new look, here is a NY Times article on a new study on the evolution of the domestic dog.

More info on Çatal Hüyük?
Click here.

More info on Jericho?
Click here.

More info on Ban P’o?
Artifacts and pictures from Ban P’o.

I didn’t get the dates and places down of where and when agriculture developed.
If you want dates, Duiker gives them. I won’t be asking about them on tests. You need the sequence: hunter-gatherer precedes pastoralism precedes agriculture precedes civilization. Duiker has a good map of early agricultural areas and lists the ones we talked about.

When was the pottery wheel invented?
In the Neolithic era some time before 4,000 BCE.

How did the bread oven develop into the pottery kiln?
Probably by accident. If you leave a clay pot in a hot enough fire it bakes and gets hard, more durable. People used to baking bread got the idea of baking clay on purpose by building “ovens” full of clay pots. We call these pot-ovens “kilns.”

Why couldn’t the nomadic hunter-gatherers and the agriculturalists cooperate?
They were rivals for the land. Plow land and plant it in wheat and you’ve pretty much ruined it for hunter-gatherers. Pastoralists’s flocks destroy the environment for both. Wandering groups naturally salivate when they see stockpiles of food stored by agriculturalists and develop into opportunistic raiders (like the bears in parks who grow to depend on garbage dumps and campers’ ice chests). This tends to make the two groups natural enemies. But some nomads did develop into trader/merchants interacting on a regular, peaceful basis with settled agricultural communities.

Why did the agricultural revolution exaggerate the gender roles of men and women?
We don’t know for sure, but agriculture leads to war (see above), and men mostly fight wars. Their militaristic prowess gets exaggerated value. Large, permanent agricultural settlements depend on coercion to get the necessary work done. Men do most of the forcing, wind up with most of the power. Women are stereotyped as sources of fertility–their roles in child-bearing and raising get emphasized. Hunter-gathering societies grant greater status to women partly because everyone is working together so much of the time (men gather along with the women, as well as hunting). Perhaps the privatization of economic life and the development of the concept of personal property led men to think of women as “property” in a way they had not before.

I’d like to know more about the social structure. Who was highest?
There is a huge variety, and we’ll talk about this more later; but priests tend to be dominant in early societies, usually eventually replaced in power by military leaders who can impose their will by force.

Because Jericho is mentioned in the Bible, I would like to know if the early city of Jericho was “Christian.”
The part of the Bible Jericho is discussed in is in the Jewish Bible (“Old Testament”), not the Christian scriptures. The Hebrews, invading from Egypt, claimed to have conquered Jericho, supposedly by a miracle. Some archaeologists believe the site was uninhabited at that time, and that the Biblical story developed to explain ancient ruins. At that point, if it existed, the city would have been Canaanite, not Jewish–and there weren’t going to be any Christians for well over a thousand years. Jericho was built, destroyed, and rebuilt many times over its long history. The earliest stone walls date back to about 8,000 BCE, more than 6,000 years before the story of Joshua in the Bible.

If the prehistoric horses died out in the Americas, where and when did they come from?
Europeans brought them. Horses escaped from the Spanish were domesticated by Native Americans long before they ever met their former masters.

I want to know more about how agriculture developed.
For a detailed history of agriculture, click here.