Axial Age & Christianity
The Axial Age was a period between 500 to 300 BC when the world's major religious and spiritual traditions arose throughout Israel, Greece, India, and China. However, the Axial Age as a concept is a controversial one for many religion scholars; its character and boundaries of space and time still remain unclear. The German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883–1969) developed the Axial Age theory, observing that most of the world religions (e.g., Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) trace their origins specifically to the first millennium BC. In his book, The Origin and Goal of History (Routledge, 2021), Jaspers wrote,
Confucius and Lao Tzu were living in China, all the schools of Chinese philosophy came into being, including those of Mot Tzu, Zhuang Zhou, Lieh Tzu, and a host of others; India produced the the Upanishads and Buddha and, like China, ran the whole gamut of philosophical possibilities down to materialism, skepticism, and nihilism; in Persia, Zoroaster taught a challenging view of the world as a struggle between good and evil; in Israel, the prophets made their appearance from Elijah by way of Isaiah and Jeremiah . . . Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, of the philosophers—Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Plato—of the tragedians, of Thucydides and Archimedes. Everything implied by these names developed during these few centuries almost simultaneously in China, India, and the West (p. 2).
The Axial Age still inspires most of our religious, spiritual, and philosophical movements today, descending from the likes of Socrates, Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, and the Hebrew prophets. Conversely, the pagan religions of Egypt, Canaan, Greece, Rome, and Mesopotamia do not hold much influence in our modern religious and spiritual views.
Jaspers observed, "Measured against the lucid humanity of the Axial Period, a strange veil seems to lie over the most ancient cultures preceding it, as though man had not yet really come to himself" (p. 7). In other words, humankind was not yet meeting its potential for greatness. It is obvious when we compare our technological age to prehistory that human beings gradually developed more complex societies and tools. Even between the Old and New Testaments, there are major transformations between the harsh reality of the Mosaic Law versus an abstract practice of heart (cf. Gal. 4:5-7). For this reason, Jesus added "with all your mind" to the common Jewish summary of the Law: "Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" (Deut. 6:4-6; cf. Mark 12:29-31). Why did he do this? Simply put, because God did not yet trust the Israelites to obey his commandments with their thoughts, so he only required them to follow the Law. This is why the New Testament includes more teaching about spiritual renewal and transformation. Likewise, Paul of Tarsus wrote, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom. 12:2). While the Old Testament emphasized strict legal obedience, the New Testament focuses on discernment. Coincidentally, the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) was written before the Axial Age, while the New Testament was written afterward.
The Hebrew prophets (e.g., Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) bridged the difference between the Mosaic Law's harsh legalism and the grace taught by Jesus and Paul. Religion scholars very much include the prophets in their lists of Axial Age teachers, as Jaspers did. Generally speaking, the Hebrew prophets lived in the same periods as the Greek philosophers, and they sometimes crossed paths. For example, the Hellenistic Jewish thinker Philo of Alexandria (c. 15 BC–c. AD 50) allegorized the Old Testament to make it respectable to Greek readers. Unlike the texts of other world religions, the Bible chronicles the entire cognitive transformation from muthos (G3454, "myth" or "fable") to logos (G3056, "word" or "speech"). As a result of this change, humankind moved from narrative stories and folklore to explain natural occurrences—we began to study the evidence itself. Simon Peter made note of this cognitive transformation when he wrote, "For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty" (2 Pet. 1:16). Conversely, the Jewish sect known as Sadducees denied all abstract knowledge, choosing to stubbornly keep the Law as literal as possible (cf. Acts 23:8). The Axial Age even drew a line in first-century Judaism, dividing these Sadducees from the Pharisees and the Jesus movement who acknowledged both law and heart
In his gospel, John son of Zebedee wrote, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (1:1). Logos is the Greek noun translated as "Word," referring to the Genesis creation narrative when God made the universe through mere speech (cf. Gen. 1:3). John was testifying that Jesus was the divine Logos that God spoke at creation. Beginning with Heraclitus (c. 540–c. 480 BC), various Greek philosophers such as Aristotle (384–322 BC) used it to define universal governing principles of order, absolute truth, and reason. Today, we have "scientific laws" such as gravity and thermodynamics to explain the concept of Logos. Religion scholars see the Axial development of Logos as a separation from the old myths, a cognitive transformation from narrative allegory to logical analysis. So, when John reinterpreted Genesis to call Jesus the divine Logos, it was to teach the same thing Moses had written narratively in an analytical fashion. Incidentally, Chinese translators of the New Testament use the word Tao to render Logos, deriving from another Axial Age teacher, Lao Tzu (fl. sixth century BC), who wrote Taoism's most formative text, Tao Te Ching. This is because the Chinese consider Tao to be the governing rule of the universe, but whose essential being lies beyond human reason. They even view Tao as the modern East Asian definition of "science," as well as an ordered set of holistic beliefs.
Some religion scholars like Karen Armstrong (2007), Nicolas Baumard, Alexandre Hyafil, and Pascal Boyer (2015) believe the Axial Age was more of a behavioral transformation rather than a cognitive one. They argue that changes in environment and the shift from hunter-gatherer societies to nation-states caused people to behave differently. Before the Axial Age, human beings formed civilizations based on a collective and uniform desire to meet their basic needs. Afterward, they centered on individual virtues such as self-discipline and self-denial, reinforced by nearly all world religions today. Jesus cited Leviticus when he taught these virtues: "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets" (Matt. 7:12; cf. Lev. 19:18). This ethic of reciprocity—"Golden Rule"—epitomizes the behavioral transformation. It may be found in every Axial Age religion and philosophy from the Mediterranean to the Far East. One generation before Jesus, the esteemed Jewish rabbi Hillel the Elder (c. 110 BC–AD 10) used the same Leviticus verse to teach reciprocity as the Torah's most important lesson. When a gentile challenged Hillel to explain the Torah while standing on one foot, he said: "That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study" (Talmud, Shabbat 3a). Jesus, Paul, and James each taught that doers of the Law, not just hearers, will receive justification from God (Matt. 7:24; Rom. 2:13; James 1:22-25). Therefore, cognition must lead to behavior.
The fact that both Hillel and Jesus quoted Leviticus to teach reciprocity demonstrates a precedent for behavioral transformation in pre-Axial Age literature. Simply put, God planted the seeds of knowledge and wisdom in the Torah. He then watered those seeds beginning with Israelite kings David and Solomon. The Hebrew prophets were the buds on this tree of knowledge, and Jesus' teaching was its maturity in full bloom. Paul testified, "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Cor. 5:17). Though the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was forbidden to Adam and Eve in the garden (Gen. 2:17), Revelation includes a brand-new tree of life for all nations (2:7; 22:2, 14, 19). Perhaps, it was no mere coincidence that Mary Magdalene confused Jesus for a gardener! (cf. John 20:15). Simply put, it was always God's will for humankind to behave wisely with a full knowledge of all things good. So, when he punished Adam and Eve for doing evil, God enacted a plan to save us from sin and death through his only-begotten Son, Jesus (cf. Gen. 3:15; John 3:16). Theologically, the Axial Age was a time of God's mercy for all people, both Jew and gentile. He trusted us with more and more knowledge that we may seek and find him wherever we are (Acts 17:27). Ironically, many critics do not like the term "Axial Age" because it implies that a common source—a zeitgeist, a spirit of the age—inspired sages from East to West to draw similar conclusions about the world. As Christians, we know this inspiration to be the Holy Spirit, who draws all people to himself (John 12:32). Paul declared, "Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:9-11). Paul also gave us this very important Christian historiography:
[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Col. 1:15-17).
Epilogue: Paul at the Areopagus
The Areopagus was the court of Athens, which met at Ares' Hill (Greek: Arieos Pagos; G697) near the Acropolis and the Parthenon (pictured above). It decided criminal cases as well as civic religious and philosophical matters. The Athenian pagans believed Zeus' son Ares was tried for the murder of Poseidon's son Halirrhothius at this site, so they named it after him. The philosopher Socrates (470–399 BC) preached at the Areopagus, and the court there would go on to execute him for promoting destructive ideas. Nonetheless, Ares' Hill was a perfect symbol of the Axial Age, setting the stage for Paul's trial before the Athenians (cf. Acts 17:16-34); nearly every trend of the Great Transformation passed through it. So, when Paul came to Athens in late AD 50, Christianity got its day in court.
When Paul visited Athens, he preached about Jesus' resurrection in both its Jewish synagogues and its pagan marketplaces. He was grieved by the city's idols, especially the altar dedicated "to an unknown god". Some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated Paul, taking him to stand before the Areopagus for trial. This same court had tried and killed Socrates about 450 years before, so make no mistake: Paul was facing the death penalty. The Epicureans and the Stoics that day called him a "babbler" (spermologos; G4691), a fitting insult since God was using Paul to clarify Axial Age truths, reversing the confusion of Babel when nations were divided into various languages (cf. Gen. 11:1-9). The Greek noun spermologos literally means "word seeder," referring to how a bird picks up random seeds. A "babbler" was someone who heard various scraps of knowledge, spreading them to people without understanding the meaning. Given that nearly every wind of Axial Age transformation swept through Athens, ignorant babblers looking for quick money were very common there.
Paul quoted the Greek poets Epimenides (fl. sixth century BC), Aratus of Soli (c. 315–c. 245 BC), and Cleanthes of Assos (c. 330–c. 232 BC) when he testified, "For 'In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets [i.e., Aratus and Cleanthes] have said, 'For we too are his offspring'" (Acts 17:28). In his poem Cretica, Epimenides lamented, "They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one, Cretans; always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies. But you are not dead: You live and abide forever, for in you we live and move and have our being." Paul also quoted from Cretica when we warned Titus: "Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons" (Titus 1:12b). In Phaenomena, Aratus declared, "All the streets and all the market places of humanity are full of Zeus. Also full of him are the sea and the harbors, and everywhere we all have need of Zeus. For we are also his offspring" (Phaen. 2-5). Likewise, Cleanthes wrote, "The beginning of the world was from you, and with law you rule over all things. To you all flesh may speak, for we are your offspring. Therefore I will lift a hymn to you and will sing of your power" ("Hymn to Zeus," 537). However, this was not an exercise in religious pluralism or comparative religion. Paul was taking the tidbits of truth from their literature, but redirecting them to the one true God. However, it was not monotheism that offended the Athenians, but Paul's mention of resurrection (Acts 17:32). Greeks did not believe in the immortality of the soul, which is the very essence of the Christian gospel.
Paul alluded to the centuries before the Axial Age when he explained, "Since we are God's offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man [Jesus] whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead" (Acts 17:29-31). Paul affirmed God's transcendence as well as his immanence, alluding to the respective Epicurean and Stoic notions of divinity. This was to show the Athenians they had some things right about God, but they needed more details to know him as objective truth with subjective faith. God is both the King of the universe and the Lord of our personal lives. This saving knowledge of Jesus makes the resurrection possible for all of us.
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, you have made of one blood all the peoples of the earth, and sent your blessed Son to teach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near: Grant that people everywhere may seek after you and find you; bring the nations into your fold; pour out your Holy Spirit upon all flesh; and hasten the coming of your kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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