Saturday, December 22, 2007

Fullness of Time: Egypt - the Power of the Priests

In researching for this series, I've realized that this topic is a tad gargantuan and it's going to be nearly impossible to survey every single religion at the time of the Incarnation and then comprehensively fit it into a blog, but I think we can at least take a gander at the biggies. (Feel free to add your own insight and thoughts. It is a learning experience for me and like all good nerds, I live to learn.)

At the time of the Lord's coming there were three religions of significance. Each religion was primed and ready and contributed to the rapid spread of the Gospel afterwards. The three dominant religions of the time were Egyptian, Greek and Judaism. (There were many, many others, but these are the three critical to the Gospel's unfurling.) Judaism was no where near as large or as the other two, but it was most certainly as strong and rich in tradition. The first I'll tackle will be the Egyptians. By the time of the Incarnation, Egypt was a Roman state, but the religion still held its people.

To understand Egyptian religion is to understand the importance of two things: The afterlife, and priests. Sounds pretty similar to us huh? Not really.

For the Egyptians, death was paramount in all their thinking, daily life and religion. All Egyptian art is centered around death and the fear of death. It's pretty cool to look at now, but it must have been a pretty miserable existence to live during that time. The amount of suffering that went in to building that civilization is unimaginable. It wasn't just the slaves who lived on a narrow margin of safety either. There is a famous epitaph of an Egyptian noble that boasts that he had never been beaten or whipped in front of the local magistrate. It was pretty common for everyone to be whacked or smacked, publicly in Egypt. If you made it through your short life (30-45) without being whipped, you were really something. Little value was placed upon the living. In such conditions, men, seeing little hope in the suffering of their present state, turned to the afterlife.

As a result, there were no great works of philosophy coming out of Egypt at the time. Why would they turn to their reasoning if it gave them no relief from the pain of their present? The mind and spirit of the Egyptian was enslaved.

In Egypt, the domain of the reasoning belonged to the priests alone. Today, popular movies depict the Pharaohs as the most powerful men in Egypt. But it was the priests who held the real power, and their power was tremendous. Kings were subject to it. And as you might guess, the priests guarded that power jealously. To the Egyptian priests, the notion of a people thinking for themselves was nothing less than catastrophic. For to be ignorant was to be afraid, and the only way to ever really rule or control man was through fear. There was only one Pharaoh who ever challenged their authority. His name was Akhenaton. Astoundingly, Akhenaton tried to turn Egypt into a monotheistic religion. But after he died, the priests took possession of his successor and wiped his name from the monuments.

So even though the Egyptian religion has been popularized in our film culture by fun summer movies, it was no joke to the everyday Egyptian. To live in Egypt was to live in a virtual misery and fear. The afterlife was the only hope you had, and the afterlife was carefully guarded by the Priests, who just happened to be the ones at the top causing all the suffering.

In short, life in Egypt sucked. No sense in romanticizing it. It sucked. Bigtime. Period. (Compared to the way we think and live today.) Unless of course, you were a priest. It is no wonder Christianity spread like a wind across its conquered remains. The wikipedia's only explanation for Christianity's rapid spread is to say the Christ resembled one of their gods and that Christ himself was a mythical person. I was astounded to read this in the Wikipedia. Christ as a mythical person is a theory that no noted historian takes seriously. It is nothing short of conspiracy theory. But somehow, it seems to be the author's only explanation:

"Egyptian mythology put up surprisingly little resistance to the spread of Christianity, sometimes explained by claiming that Jesus was originally a syncretism based predominantly on Horus, with Isis and her worship becoming Mary and veneration (see Jesus as myth)."

Nice try. I have a different take on why Christianity spread.

Next up: The Greeks.


Ben Morales-Correa said...

I couldn't help noticing a huge amount of prejudice and superficiality on your analysis of Egyptian religion. It is a common misconception that Egyptians were obsessed with death or the "afterlife". What has been preserved to this day from Ancient Egypt are objects made of the most durable materials, which, like in any other society, were used to commemorate their dead. But even if you visit an Egyptian tomb, you will find images of people celebrating life, not the mournful images common to Christian cemeteries.

Even before the Greeks ever thought of philosophy, Egyptians were conscious of a natural order (Maat) which gave meaning to their existence. Without this profound knowledge and acute observation of their natural environment it would not have been possible to achieve so many extraordinary accomplishments in social organization, agriculture, trade, warfare, science, religion, art, sculpture, architecture, music and poetry.

By your standards of social inequality, it would suck to live everywhere. In Ancient Egypt, slaves were not a major component of the labor force, as Hollywood movies portray. You say you were astounded to read in Wikipedia how Christianity was imposed upon the conquered Egyptians. It may also astound you to learn that women in Ancient Egypt enjoyed a legal status much superior to any other civilization of the time, especially compared to Ancient Greece.

Seth Ward said...

Ben, thanks for dropping by and for your insight and comments. I'm sure that I was a tad disrespectful to the Egyptians somewhere in there. If you read back on my blogs I tend to mingle humor with scholarship and sometimes it doesn't come off so well. But that is why there are comment sections to clear up any misconceptions!

Let me first say that I find the Egyptian religion and culture fascinating and exciting - to study, that is. They were no where near as barbaric or blood thirsty as the Mayans, or the Romans for that matter, but they were no Greece, as far as individual freedom or the rule of law was concerned. I'm sure that makes you cringe, but the facts are the facts. Priests had the power, not individuals. To dispute that goes in the face of all Scholarship.

I will respond to your comments from what Egyptian scholars that I have been studying and have studied. So, you may have more recent scholarship available and of course it is welcome.

Yes, the Egyptian hieroglyphs do not have sad faces, but that kind of expression was not common to the Egyptian Art or any art in general until the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and the Egyptians doing the carving were not exactly in a place to do much bitching and moaning. You have to go out to the caves where the pyramid limestone was excavated to find the crude scrapings on the wall for that. (Some recent discoveries.) From what I've read, either a kind of slave or a commissioned artist (scribes) carved the hieroglyphs and hieroglyphic art. And I doubt a priest would be commissioning an artist or scribe to display how crappy they were treating the people.

The rest of the scholarly world will have to disagree with you about Egypt preceding the Greeks in philosophy. The Greeks invented it, as we know it today. (Honestly, today, the word “philosophy” is a prosaic version of the fresh Greek view of it. The very term comes from them.) If you mean that the Egyptians preceded the Greeks in religion, then yes, they were there before the Greeks. But there were people before the Egyptians that believed in God and that he governed their lives as well. The rule of morality in man and man fearing their gods is as old as archeologists can dig.

As far as the hieroglyphs showing Egyptians "celebrating life" is concerned, I'm not sure what you mean. If you mean depictions of people joyfully placating gods or pharaohs, then yes, I guess you are right, but celebrating life in the now was not something common to the Egyptian from everything I have read. There may be a few rogue Egyptologists who are trying to re-think the Egyptians in to a happy-go-lucky society where everything was pretty and fun, but most studies show that to live in Egypt was nothing like the free mindset that we enjoy today in western civilization. And that is really not a gross generalization. We need only look across the map or into our recent history to find entire cultures enslaved to mindsets that exhibit the rule of power through fear.

No one was really "free" in Egypt. Again - not a stretch. Either government, or a harsh religious mindset enslaves societies through the ages, and today. Modern day India is an example of a society that finds certain people as good as trash, some people medium trash and some people venerable. And that society has the benefit of being in a world where there are many civilizations living in stark contrast! Egyptians had no such contrast. As far as women and equality goes, the Egyptian may have given women more “rights,” but it was Jesus of Nazareth that gave equality and importance to all life: sick, lame, leper, child, blind, male, female, prostitute, beggar, dying and repentant thief, Jew, Gentile... This is why his influence was so powerful and the religion swept through pagan civilizations. (Even before Constantine.) But more on that later.

As far as science goes, the Egyptians surpassed all in mathematics. Which is why they could build what they built. But as far as medicinal studies... it was pretty much up to the magic of the priest to fix your ailment. Also common to every religion (EXCEPT JUDAISM!!!) One record showed that the Egyptian used dung and fly innards to treat an open wound. It was the Greeks who first looked upon the body and began with the mind and not magic when trying to fix it. It is from the Greeks that we have the term "Physician." Modern medical science owes nothing, save maybe embalmment, to the Egyptians. But it seems that the Egyptian physicians traveled in different circles than the embalmers. Most common ailments were treated with spells. The effective treatments where the equivalent of “eat your veggies and drink your milk.” Maybe throw in a massage for aching muscles. All their rudimentary treatments can be found in the surviving medical records: The Edwin Smith Papyrus describing surgical diagnosis and treatments, the Ebers Papyrus on ophthalmology, diseases of the digestive system, the head, the skin the Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus, the Hearst medical papyrus repeats many of the recipes found in the Ebers papyrus, and the Demotic Magical Papyrus of London and Leiden.

It is astounding to find out how much they knew, but how little the knew to do anything about it. Their use of garlic was probably their greatest medical achievement. Their consistent use of dung, their worst.

Lastly, the point of the blog wasn't that the Egyptians didn't accomplish things. The fact that the Egyptian civilization was "great" is undisputed. Their accomplishments as a society goes are astounding. And to be fair, they were the first "great" society, except maybe for ancient Assyria. (a new debate) But it was a society governed by fear and deep, deep superstition, which had to be the mindset present to accomplish things they did. The pyramids were not built by a bunch of happy Egyptians who just loved to haul thousands of tons of stone every day across the desert until they croaked. Like most great works of ancient architecture, they were built under a strong and harsh ruling class. The most certainly didn’t work under the protection of “rights” or a union that would support a strike if they were working too long of hours.

As far as my standard of social equality, yes, it did suck to live anywhere, except Greece. But I'll get to that next post.

It does not astound me that Christianity was "imposed" upon Egyptians, at all. However, there was no "SET" or standard Egyptian religion. In fact, the Priests used the ever changing and perpetuating mysteries of their gods and afterlife to sustain their own importance. The power of the priest depended upon the darkness of the mystery. His effort was to ever increase it, rather than to throw light upon it and give it a set and therefore questionable dogma. Yes they had gods, but unlike Yahweh of the Jews, their gods went through many different metamorphoses throughout the dynasties. Even geography could change the face of a god. In one part of the Nile, Seti was the god of chaos, in another, he had a different name. In one part he had the head of an alligator, in another, he looked like a dog with a scorpion tail. The list of the various gods is vast. By the time the Romans trampled them, the culture was crumbling and people were pretty tired of the priests.

One thing on the re-read that I feel I should clear up. Yes, the Greeks were the first "free thinkers" in recorded history, but that isn't to say that the Egyptians were dummies. Quite the opposite. It took great minds and keen intellects to build up that mighty organization of priests, and the astounding architectural works, but there was a fatal flaw: Any idea that would weaken the traditions of old, was met with hostility. This is how the power of the priesthood was preserved. History shows that any such mindset is destined to fall or for anarchy. This is in STARK contrast to Greek thinking. The Greeks questioned and examined EVERYTHING. It was pretty much their motto.

So it can be said that after certain ideologies had been set in the Egyptian religion, any intellectualism must have been sorry as there wasn't much room for change if you wanted to keep the power of the priesthood thriving.

To be ignorant was to be afraid, and man needs guidance when venturing into the dark mysteries of the unknown. They must have guidance. That came from the priests. (Sadly, this was also true of Christianity in the dark ages when Bishops and priests were not even Christian.)

The role of reason in the Ancient world was assigned to certain individuals, priests, and their authority was to be unquestioned. With men's thoughts directed more to the unseen world, and with the keys in their hands, their terrific power was assured.

Joanna Martens said...

Did Akhenaton have any correlation with ancient Judaism thus the "mono-theistic" view? And wasn't Judaism the only religion that worshiped only one God as supreme?

Your blog is out of control. What a flipping awesome read. You're a smart cookie- glory to God of course.

hey the guy that sang for moses on "prince of egypt" is my good friend amick byram. his stories on the making of that film are pretty cool.

keep up the posts! i'll be back to read!

Seth Ward said...

Hi Joanna, and thanks!

How cool about your friend doing the singing for Moses. I was blown away at how close Kilmer's voice timbre was to the singer's. It was so close that until the credits rolled I was convinced it was Kilmer singing. I buzzed by your blog and notice that you work in television. What kind of stuff does a production coordinator do?

About the Egyptian Judaism correlation...

There doesn't seem to be any correlation besides one of coincidence. However Freud tried to tie them together and wrote a book about it, “Moses and Monotheism.” Since the 60’s all that has been thrown out including Freud’s psychoanalyses of the Jews. (He basically said that all Judaism was invented out of a big guilt trip because the murdered Moses, a buddy of Akhenaton.

Even though it was discounted I would venture to say that is it more than coincidence considering the God draws all men unto Himself. If we believe that Akhenaton was a descendant of Adam then he could have been simply blessed with a spiritual perspective and wisdom that was beyond the norm.

He worshiped Aten, the sun. In a sense he still worshiped a physical idol but he certainly attributed things to Aten in the way that the Jews did to Yahweh. Here is an excerpt from a hymn to Aten that I found that strikingly resembles verses found in Psalms and Job.

Hymn to Aten:

How manifold it is, what thou hast made!
They are hidden from the face (of man).
O sole god, like whom there is no other!
Thou didst create the world according to thy desire,
Whilst thou wert alone: All men, cattle, and wild beasts,
Whatever is on earth, going upon (its) feet,
And what is on high, flying with its wings.

Some might argue that this would be a commonplace prayer for people in all ages, but they would be wrong. There were many gods that did many things and to pray to one god, attributing all things to him would be unique only to the Jews. And that's only because God told them it was so. "Tell them I Am that I Am sent you..."

Joanna Martens said...

hey seth!
again, OUT OF CONTROL! Thanks for the reply...
It's obvious in the book of Jonah that God had His prophets running around to all different nations, and you are right that it is put into the heart of man to know that there is a God. The prophets to whom the world was not worthy seemed to be those who prophesied to all nations, not just Israel, but the prophets came from Israel... correct me if I'm wrong. It might be possible that a prophet who knew Yahweh, or experienced worship to Yahweh had a "chat" with our Egyptian Pharaoh, or maybe God in His sovereign grace opened his eyes to truth... God seems to do that, and since Egypt rejected it (not surprising), than that is just condemnation on them, because God had sent someone to them.


I work in Hollywood as a production coordinator for a small company. The channel is Veria only available through Dish Network. It's more of a small Discovery health sort of deal, but it's experience and God has opened doors to share the gospel with people. My heart is in this industry and God is always amazing me with all the doors He's opening.

Really I'm not looking to be this bigtime filmmaker, or whatever, really it's just to represent God, tell Hollywood people about Him, get laughed at, and love Jesus. I'm here until He calls me elsewhere.

Amick is a pretty cool dude. He would sing for me during our theatre rehearsals and I would basically die of happiness. He's so flippin' talented it's ridiculous.

hope this answers your question, and feel free to stop by my blogginess to say hi!