In the beginning... (a few people responsible for discovering how the universe began)

The way we design universes today, with the observational approach of modern science, may differ from the sacred metaphors of our ancestors, but we all do it for the same reason: to comprehend the universe the way that lets us feel at home in it.   
-E. C. Krupp 

 There was disorder and there was order, one day.
-Genesis 1:13

Once upon a time, some 13 1/2 billion years ago, the entire universe was so small, it could fit in the palm of your hand.  Then, for some strange reason, nobody quite knows why, it expanded.  It did not really explode as often depicted by the media, but it just grew from that tiny speck and it grew and grew and grew. It is still growing to this day.

This is not a myth, legend, or another religious story about how the universe began.  This is really, truly how the universe began. How do we know? Well we have both a logical explanation and physical (empirical) evidence.  Logic and empiricism are the two central components of science, and science is the language we use to understand nature. If we have those two bases covered, we have a complete set of tools needed to uncovered nature's secrets.

So what is the evidence? You could say it all starts with everyone's favorite 20th century scientist, Albert Einstein.  Einstein did not discover the origins of the universe, but he came up with a logical explanation that describes how the universe is constructed. The logic here is based on math - really complicated math, like calculus.  Calculus was, in fact, invented to help describe how the Earth and Sun and other planets and stars interact and keep from crashing into each other or falling apart. In 1916, Albert Einstein wrote a paper in which he tried to correct some errors that earlier 19th century scientists, particularly Isaac Newton, made in their calculations that describe the structure of the universe. Einstein's corrections revealed the gravity is not a mysterious force, as Newton kinda thought, but yet a property of space and time rationally explained by 4-dimensional geometry. This correction was known as the General Theory of Relativity.

The related Special Theory of Relativity that made Einstein famous was developed 11 years earlier (1905) and it is from the special theory that we get the famous E = mc2. This statement itself reveals some interesting facts about the universe.  Everything is either energy (E) or mass (m), and even this distinction is an illusory, because what E = mc2 essentials tells us is that every piece of mass contains within it an enormous amount of energy.  All of the mass and energy currently in the universe came from that initial blast of energy released from that tiny speck 13.7 million years ago. Some of that energy turned into stuff (matter), and the rest of it is keeping the universe going.  Life on Earth is driven by a small fraction of it.

Einstein, however, barely missed his chance at discovering the universe's origins, because he believed what the ancient Greeks believed about the origins of the universe: that there was no beginning to the universe. It was static and eternal in both time and space.  Einstein believed the universe had always existed in the same form it exists now and will continue to exist forever.  He believed this so strongly that he incorporated a number, known as the cosmological constant, in his formulas that prevented the universe from expanding or contracting.

It was another person, a Catholic priest from Belgium by the name of Georges Lemaitre, who studied cosmology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recognized this error, removed the constant that keep the universe from expanding, and provided the theoretical framework for the origins of the universe. The paper he wrote about this was first published in 1927 in the relatively obscure Annals of the Scientific Society of Brussels. Lemaitre was able to show, mathematically, that the universe began as a tiny speck that he referred to as the "primeval atom" or the "cosmic egg".

Lemaitre and Einstein*
To most physicists and astronomers at the time who believed in Einstein's 'steady-state' construction of the universe, this idea of an expanding universe was crazy. One of them, Fred Hoyle, a British astrophysicist, later mockingly referred to this idea as the "big bang theory".  Now-a-days, not only have most of us come to love and accept this idea, but we have come to love the mocking description as well.  Georges Lemaitre is sometimes referred to as the "father of the big bang theory" as a consequence.

When theoretical scientists, like Einstein and Lemaitre, create logical models, those models, if they are good ones, will often make predictions about the behavior of nature.  This is where the empirical evidence comes in. With science, a lot of weight is placed on evidence that one can see, hear or touch. A scientific theory is never truly accepted as fact until there is hard physical evidence.  If the universe, for example, is expanding, then one should be able to see the stars and galaxies spreading away from us.  In 1929, two years after Lemaitre's paper was first published, an astronomer by the name of Edwin Hubble at Mt. Wilson observatory near Pasadena, California did just that, sort of.  He did not actually see stars and galaxies moving away.  They are too small and too far away to observe that directly, but what he saw were galaxies behaving as one would expect them to behave if they were moving away.

Hubble, in turn, was in dept to the hard work of at least two other scientists, Vesto Slipher, the director of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona and a computer named Henrietta Swan Leavitt at the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt
Leavitt, the computer at Harvard, was responsible for formulating something called the 'period-luminosity relationship' of a particular type of stars known as Cepheid variables. This discovery essentially made it possible to determine how far galaxies are from us.  At the time, women were hired in mass to do the manual labor of recording data.  Before the non-human version of computers were invented, the word 'computer'  referred to low-paid but highly educated assistants, most often women, who performed tedious calculations for scientists and engineers. Leavitt did her observations not through a telescope (as another of the indignities placed on the lowly computers was that they didn't get to play with expensive equipment), but through thousands of photographs, primarily measuring the brightness of stars. Leavitt's familiarity with the data led her to discover the cyclically varying brightness of certain stars (Cepheid variables) providing a way to measure the distances between galaxies, a sort of cosmological yardstick. Although she published her initial data in the Annals of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College, Leavitt's ground-breaking discover of Cepheid variables was published by her employer, Edward Pickering, in a Harvard College Observatory Circular in 1912.  Leavitt had not been given much credit for it in her lifetime, but her discovery had played a significant role in changing our view of the universe.  Stars are not evenly spaced out from each other as was thought in the 19th century, but are clustered into galaxies.

Vesto Slipher
The other person, Vesto Slipher, used a device known as a spectrometer to analyze the light coming of planets and stars.  Different elements, it turns outs, produce different wavelength patterns of light and these patterns can be measured with a simple device known as a spectrometer.  Slipher pointed this device at stars and planets and analyzed the spectral patterns (or spectral lines) coming from them. This is how we know what elements are on other planets of the solar system.  It is how we know our Sun as well as other stars are huge fusion factories were hydrogen atoms are combined to make helium.  Nobody has actually been to the Sun to find that out.  Slipher, and other scientists, figured it out indirectly with the handy spectrometer. In 1912, Slipher also noticed that the light coming from far away galaxies 'shifts' toward the red-end of the color spectrum. This observation suggested that most galaxies are not standing still but moving away from each other at very, very fast speeds. Although he published his finding in the Lowell Observatory Bulletin in 1912 and in another article he wrote for Popular Astronomy some three years later, Slipher was somewhat of a recluse and avoided conferences that other scientists used judicially to promote their ideas and to advance their careers.

Image courtesy of USPS
When Edwin Hubble asked Slipher for his data, Slipher was more than happy to cooperate. To this day, it is Hubble who is remembered most for discovering the expanding universe, the key finding that led to the idea that universe began as a tiny speck some 13 1/2 billion years. Specifically, he discovered that a galaxy's velocity is proportional to its distance (an observation predicted by Lemaitre's mathematical theorizing). Galaxies that are twice as far from us move twice as fast. Another consequence is that the universe is expanding in every direction. This observation means that every galaxy has moved away from a common starting position at the same time in the very distant past.

Hubble is further remembered with a famous telescope currently orbiting the earth. He also has a cool postage stamp (left).  The telescope in the background is Mt. Wilson observatory, where Hubble was employed, not the Hubble Space telescope named after him. In addition, he have an asteroid and a crater on the Moon named after him. By the way, both Leavitt and Slipher also have an asteroid and a Moon crater named in their honor, while Slipher has an addition crater on Mars named after him.

God seconding a sentiment once expressed by an Atheist?
Not everyone is comfortable with the big bang theory, however.  Usually the same people and the same groups of evangelical Christians who are opposed to biological evolution are also not happy with the big bang.  There is some irony to the fact that the father of the big bang is a Catholic priest.

The astronomer Fred Hoyle, the original opponent of the big bang theory who coined the phrase as an insult, was a committed hard-core Atheist, and spent a great deal of argument and effort trying to disprove it. To Hoyle, and a lot of other Atheists, the big bang was too similar to the idea of Biblical creation.

Fred Hoyle
Likewise, Pope Pius XII, the pope during and after World War II when the big bang theory was just starting to win acceptance, thought the theory was a validation of Christianity and the Biblical account of creation. Pope Pius XII would later accept evolution as well, and it all may because a Catholic priest's role in discovering the big bang theory.  Lemaitre, himself, on the other hand, did not quite think the same way as the pope. Lemaitre had a very different take on the relationship between science and religion, regarding the two as separate, incompatible but equally valid domains. To him, the big bang theory did not vindicate religious faith, but rather the two had nothing to do with each other. He was an advocate of Stephan Jay Gould's '"non-overlapping magisteria" (Noma) long before Gould coined the phrase in 1997. Shortly after the pope's incorporation of the big bang into Catholic dogma, Lemaitre wrote:
Lemaitre and Pope Pius XII
“As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question. It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being… For the believer, it removes any attempt at familiarity with God… It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe.”

Further Reading (some primary sources).

Henrietta Swan Leavitt. 1908. "1777 Variables in the Magellanic Clouds" Annals of Harvard College Observatory. LX(IV):87-110

Edward C. Pickering. 1912. "Periods of 25 Variable Stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud" Harvard College Observatory Circular 173: 1-3.

Vesto Slipher. 1912. "The radial velocity of the Andromeda Nebula". Lowell Observatory Bulletin: 2.56–2.57.

Vesto Slipher. 1915. "Spectrographic Observations of Nebulae". Popular Astronomy: 21–24.

George Lemaitre. 1927 (1931 English translations). "Expansion of the Universe, A Homogeneous Universe of Constant Mass and Increasing radius Accounting fort the Radial Velocity of Extra-Galactic Nebulae". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. 91: 483-490

Hubble, Edwin. 1929. "A relation between distance and radial velocity among extra-galactic nebulae". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 15(3): 168–173

Further Reading (secondary sources)

Chris Impey. 2012. How It Began: A Time-Traveler's Guide to the Universe. W W Norton & Company

George Johnson. 2005. Miss Leavitt's Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman who Discovered How to Measure the Universe. Atlas Books

Harry Nussbaumer; Lydia Bieri; Allen Sandage. 2009. Discovering the Expanding Universe. Cambridge University Press.

Simon Singh. 2005. Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe. Fourth Estate.

*all images are from Wikimedia or Wikipedia unless otherwise noted.


Adam and Eve Loved Seafood!

...or at least they learned to love it. I'll explain later, but first a little background information.

In previous lessons on Mitochondria Eve and Y-Chromosome Adam, I took the liberty to update the Jewish creation story - at least the part dealing with the first humans - to incorporate recent scientific discoveries. I hope nobody takes offense to me messing with some old stories, but Bible stories, after all, were never meant to be taken literally. They help make sense of complicated issues we can not fully comprehend given our limited intellect. Like any form of folklore, they are often edited and updated.

Scribes first wrote some of the stories on papyrus scrolls some 600 hundred years before Christ, but the stories themselves are much older. Storytellers before them past down the stories orally from generation to generation, with slight modifications with each telling and retelling, and even after they were written down, people reinterpret the stories to fit our contemporary needs. If you don't believe me, try finding the story of Lot's daughters' youthful indiscretion in a children's Bible. Only recently did religious reactionaries demand their literal truth as a defense against anti-religious forces. I'm digressing; back to our story...

It turns out that Adam was not created first. According to reliable scientific evidence, Eve actually preceded Adam by some 140,000 years. Both Eve and Adam, it also turns out, lived a lot earlier then we had previously thought. Instead of 4004 BC as determined by the 17th century Anglican bishop James Ussher, Adam lived and died around 60,000 years ago and Eve thrived around 200,000 years ago. They lived in small communities of about 500 to 1000 other humans somewhere in east or southern Africa. Granted, we can not be certain of the dates and number of individuals. Adam may have been older than we think and some estimates place Eve closer to Adam's lifetime. It is conceivable that this Adam and Eve lived around the same time and may have even  met each other, let alone had a relationship, but that's highly improbable. We can be certain, however, that they did have a mate, probably even more than one, and had plenty of children and descendants.

We know this because a tiny bit of them lives on in each and every one of us today. Every male alive today has a copy of Adam's Y-chromosome in their cells, and every person, male and female, has Eve's mitochondrial DNA is their cells.

Stone and Ice: The Ages of Adam and Eve

No one really wrote or told stories about the real Adam and Eve because they existed long before writing was invented around 5000 years ago and they probably were not noteworthy enough to be the stuff of legends; they were just ordinary member of their community or tribe. They existed long before the first humans started to build cities and farm the surrounding land 10,000 years ago. They were hunters and gatherers who used stone tools to hunt and prepare food. They most likely also used tools made of wood, bone, and other perishable materials, but we don't have a lot of evidence of that. We do know more about the stone tools because they have survived into the present.

The first tool-making humans left their tools all over the world, after which they got buried in layers of sand and other sediment. Over the course of time, the sand and sediment hardened under compression of more recent layers on top and turned into rock. These rocks are call sedimentary rocks as a consequence. Eventually rivers and streams carved valleys and rifts through the sedimentary rock layers (or 19th to 21st century humans carved out the side of hills to run roads and railways through them). Both activities exposed the rock layers containing the old stone tools. People now-a-days, often called archaeologists, dig them out and study them.

Right around the time writing was invented 5000 years ago, some people began to replace stone with metal as a primary material for making weapons and tools, although not everyone. There are people in some parts of the world today who still use stone to make tools. Nevertheless the years before 3000 BC are called the Stone Age because until then everyone in the world was making tools with stone. The Stone Age was such a long period of time that it is divided into three sections: The New Stone Age (or Neolithic) from 3000 BC to 9500 BC, the Middle Stone Age (Mesolithic) from 9500 BC to around 20,000 years ago and the Old Stone Age (Paleolithic) from 20,000 years ago to 2.5 million years ago. The Paleolithic, in turn, was such a long time it was further divided into the Upper Paleolithic (20,000 to about 40,000 years ago) and the Middle Paleolithic (the really old stone) from 40,000 to the around the birth of modern humans 200,000 years ago. There is also a Lower Paleolithic from 2.5 million years ago to 200,000 years, because modern humans (homo sapiens) were not the only creatures to make tools. There were a few other archaic human species (most notably homo habilis and homo erectus) who also made tools.

Neolithic: 3000-9500 BC (farming, writing, cities)      
Mesolithic: 9500 BC - 20,000 years ago
    Upper: 20,000 - 40,000 (post-Adam: complex language, cave art and 'Venus' figurines)
    Middle: 40,000 - 200,000 (post-Eve 'archaic' homo sapiens ) 
    Lower: 200,000 - 2.5 million ya  (homo erectus, homo habilis)

The boundaries between the Stone Age subdivisions, characterized by cultural changes, are not as clear as the table above makes them out to be. There is a great deal of argument over the dates, as they are called into question with new archaeological discoveries, but there are somewhat abrupt changes in the way tools were used and made, for example, between the Lower and Middle Paleolithic. Simple all-purpose hand-held 'knife/axes' of homo erectus gave way to more sophisticated and specialized variety of tools (i.e. spear-heads, carving knives, paring knives, etc) of modern humans.

You may have noticed that the Middle Paleolithic began at roughly the same time Eve lived, and the Upper Paleolithic began a few thousand years after Adam's lifespan. This is no accident. Both these time periods were characterized by environmental changes that placed stress on the humans alive at the time. The world human population was so low that a few individuals with genetic mutations were able to better thrive in the new environment and out-competed their un-mutated cousins for the limited resources. These 'starter' populations grow to around 1000 when Adam and Eve lived, and then expanded from there. Evolutionary biologists refer to this phenomenon as a bottleneck effect.

The 'mutated' brains of the individuals within the starter populations allowed them to think differently and build better tools. That's why we see abrupt changes in tool technology around 100,000 years ago and again around 60,000 years ago. More abrupt changes occurs in more recent time periods (use of metal, gears and pulleys, electricity) but these were all localized and due to cultural advancement, not changes in the basic brain structure, which has not changed much in the past 60,000 years. 

The root cause of the environmental stress, that led to the new brains, was the 'Ice Age'. The world was getting colder and glacial ice-sheets were making their way into southern Europe. The glaciers advanced and retreated several time during the Stone Age but they were at their maximum extent around 100,000 to 60,000 years ago. In Africa, where modern homo sapiens were located, however, the world was not covered in glaciers but desert. The Sahara desert was actually larger and dryer then it is today. Unlike the blazing hot Sahara of today, the Sahara back then would have been cool, more like the Gobi desert of central Asia or the Great Basin of north America. The animals and plants of the warm African savannas that homo habilis and homo erectus have previously survived on were dwindling. Human populations were stressed and if they were to survive they were going to have to rely on their wits.

Homo sapiens: Needy and Handicapped Misfits

Our large energy-taxing brains was precisely, and paradoxically, the mutation that gave us a selective advantage. If you were alive in the middle Paleolithic, however, you probably would not guess that homo sapiens would triumph in the end. Our over-sized heads are so big in infancy, it widened the hips of every female homo sapiens through evolutionary selection and yet childbirth today still causes tremendous pain and risks to the delivering mother.

No wonder that the same scribes who first wrote about Eve and Adam also hypothesized that painful and risky childbirth was punishment for first eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. They may have been rather sexists, but they were on to something. Considering that our intellectual lifestyle all started with close-knit communities of women helping each other to give birth and raise children, Eve and her sisters truly were the first to taste the Knowledge fruit.

Knowledge and intelligence, in their most basic forms, entails the ability to perceive what others are thinking, or what we think others are thinking about us.  Hence, the ability to project thoughts, make predictions, and hypothesize is what makes humans unique in the animal kingdom.

Not only is a baby's brain massively large at birth, but it is not even finished developing upon birth. The brain will continue to develop and mature on a massive scale for the next year or so and will not stop developing well into adulthood. Unlike most other animals that see, hear, walk and even run soon after birth, human babies are physically helpless and dependent on others. This is part of the reason why humans are so social. We need others for the first few years of life for basic physical survival skills, and even then continue to need others for intellectual development. Even after we are able to leave our parents around 20 years of age, we are still dependent on the butcher, the blacksmith, the UPS delivery person, and a host of other humans with specialized knowledge for survival.

A multitude of sources - from the Bible to those omnipresent charts on human evolution showing a progression of hominids marching in a single file with the poor chimpanzee in back and the 'ideal' homo sapien leading the way - are rather misleading. This mythological rendering may need to be updated.  Humans are not necessarily the pinnacle of creation (or evolution).  We should be thinking more in terms of the 'underdog', or the misfit who triumphs in the end by using an unknown skill.  Humans were, in fact, deformed outcasts who learned to use their deformity to their advantage.

Our Coastal Origins

One popular theory holds that small groups of surviving humans found their way to the margins of east and south Africa, along the Indian Ocean coast and great lakes of east Africa. There they found a new source of food: fish and seafood. Gathering and preparing seafood requires a new set of skills and knowledge. Anyone who has been to the ocean beach knows, for example, the sea life is more visible at low tide. So humans that can think and plan ahead had an advantage. The tides are depended on the Moon's gravity, and if one can see the connection between phases of the Moon and the tides, they could make useful predictions. This skill may have led to the first lunar calendars.

Recently, archaeologists have, in fact, found evidence that early humans were living off the sea. In 2007, a group of archaeologists led by Curtis Marean of Arizona State University discovered a cave in Mossel Bay, South Africa where early humans lived and survived by gathering and processing seafood. They also found a new set of tools and a dye-processing operation where the early humans were extracting ochre from the mineral hematite. The ochre dye was probably being used for body or face paint and perhaps other forms of decorative art. Some of the sea shells recovered at the site have holes drilled through them, suggesting they were beaded through string and may have been adorned like jewelry. Interestingly, this habitation was dated to around 165,000 years ago, closer to Eve's lifetime then Adam's. It had generally been assumed that the 'great leap forward' of human intelligence was around 40,000 years ago, but apparently, we humans "got smart" a lot sooner than that.

One of things that makes humans unique is our ability to "plan ahead", see connections with seemingly unrelated phenomena, and make predictions (although not always correct) about the future. The art and culture developing around this time, or shortly there after, suggests we also had the capability for symbolic communication. Language was developing as well as other forms of communicative speculation like religion and astronomy.

Related Lessons

EveAdamNeanderthalThe Garden of Eden

Further Reading

Bruce Bower. 2011."Water's Edge Ancestors: Human evolution's tide may have turned on lake and sea shores." Science News. 180:22 (Aug. 13)

Christopher S. Henshilwood. 2011. "A 100,000-year-old ochre processing workshop at Blombos Cave, South Africa". Science 334, 219-222 (Oct. 14)

Sarah B. Hrdy. 2009. Mothers and Others. The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Belknap Press.

Curtis Marean, et. al. 2007. "Early human use of marine resources and pigment in South Africa during the Middle Pleistocene." Nature 449, 905-908 (Oct. 18)

See also the PBS three part series on human evolution Becoming Human. Part 3: the Last Human Standing is especially relevant for this lesson.


Why Irreligious People Like Yoga (or Philosophical Developments of Ancient India)

One day, you will find yourself outside this world which is like a mother’s womb. You will leave this earth to enter, while you are yet in the body, a vast expanse, and know that the words, “God’s earth is vast,” name this region from which the saints have come.
—Jalal-ud-Din Rumi
There is a growing number of Americans who don't identify with any church or religious organization. This is a different group of people who simply do not go to church (which is much larger). When confronted with the survey question asking 'what is your religious affiliation?", people who respond "none", or something equivalent to it, is growing rapidly.  See, for example, this report based on a 2008 American Religious Identification Survey. The percentage has grown from 8% in 1990 to 15% in 2008, a figure that now includes 34 million Americans.  If "none" were a religion, it would be the fastest growing religion in north America, and quite possibly the world. The percentage is even higher in many western European nations.
Most of these "nones" are not politically radical, cynical toward religion, nor are they atheists, for the most part (although many of them describe themselves as agnostics). They tend to be well-educated, independent, and upwardly mobile; at least financially stable, if not wealthy. Lack of belief in God or frustration with the political affiliations of particular churches seem not be the major concerns of the people who don't identify with any religion, according to the surveys findings. If you were to ask many of them why they reject religion, one of the reasons often given is something like: religion stifles individual expression (here I am speculating based on anecdotal evidence, I admit; I have no knowledge of a scientific survey asking this question).  They place a lot of pride on individual uniqueness.

If that's the case, there probably isn't much any religious organization can do to attract these dissenters, because one of the primary functions of religion is to perform rituals, however repetitive and predictable, to remind us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.  Religion, for the most part, is not for the independent spirit. Conventional religion often emphasize transcendence of the individual sense of self. The concept of the self, with it's desires and attachments, is discouraged, even if only momentarily. Communion with God is experienced through solidarity with the tribe and the collective belief that we are connected to God's incomprehensible kingdom.

The rapid growth in disenfranchised "nones" could signal a turning point in societal attitudes, beliefs and common worldviews.  Religious transformations often accompany cultural, economic and life-style changes. The rise of Christianity accompanied the fall of the Roman Empire.  That was no coincidence. Early Christianity's themes of piety, meekness, and revolutionary rhetoric ("the first shall be last, and the last shall be first") appealed to a growing number of poor, disenfranchised, and powerless urban dwellers who had little hope of upward mobility in the increasing cruel, hedonistic and spiritual lost Roman society.  The rigid disciple and organized structure of the early church provided Christians with a sense of purpose and determination, in much the same way Kingdom Halls of Jehovah's Witnesses and Pentecostal Churches provide spiritual, emotional, and sometimes material support for poor communities in the U.S. (and throughout the world)  today.

In contrast, during boom times and among upwardly mobile and educated people, religions, or irreligious worldviews, tended to be forward looking, rational, personal and internalized.  In previous lessons, we have seen how the Greek-speaking merchants of Miletus influenced, patronized, and helped perpetuate the philosophical worldview of materialism, or naturalism.  Materialism was one of many trendy worldviews popular in ancient Greece at the time. Pythagoras and other philosophers were responsible for spreading other new religious and philosophical worldviews as well.

Ancient India - a little background

In another part of world about 3500 miles to the east of Greece, along the Ganges river valley of modern-day India, and around the same time (600 to 400 BC), strikingly similar developments in both lifestyles and religious worldview had occurred.  Historians often refer to this period in history as the Axial Age because of the similarities in pivotal religious and philosophical transformations in different parts of the world: Confucius and Taoism in China, Thales and Pythagoras in Greece, Zoroastrianism in Persia. In the Middle East, exiled Jewish scribes in Babylon were rewriting the Bible to transform their tribal god into a universal omnipresent God that would be the central focus of not only Rabbinical Judaism but Christianity and Islam as well.
Map courtesy of Wikipedia editor Kmusser 
In the heart of India, a thriving civilization emerged at roughly the same time classical Greece arose from their so-called Dark Ages of Homer and Hesiod. Buildings and complex religious structures were being built with the aid of Pythagorean triplets, astronomers were measuring and predicting the movement of planets, and metals were being used to develop a sophisticated coinage system.

India at this time was divided into several independent kingdoms known as Mahajanapadas.  There were 16 at the most, but the number fluctuated from time to time as larger kingdoms conquered smaller ones.  The general trend was toward fewer and fewer larger ones, and around 400 B.C., there were four kingdoms.  Each kingdom had one or two thriving commercial centers.  Many of these cities like Varanasi and Patna are still around today, and probably just as lively and active as they were when they first developed.

At around the same time the Greeks were borrowing and modifying the Phoenician alphabet to create the Greek alphabet, the Indians were learning about the Aramaic alphabet brought over by traveling merchants from the Middle East. Indian scribes soon after used the Aramaic alphabet to develop a script tailored to the native language of Sanskrit.  This alphabet was known as the Brahmi script, and it would serve as the basis of all modern Indian alphabets. It also spread east and served as the base for all the alphabets of southeast Asia, Tibet, and Mongolia.  The only exceptions were Chinese and Japanese, which resisted the push to 'upgrade' their writing systems to completely phonetic alphabets and continue to use more complex logo-graphic systems into the present.

Some of the religious and philosophical ideas originating in India around this time resembled ideas popular in Greece, challenging the notion that the ancient Greeks were unique in their philosophical achievements. One Indian thinker by the name of Ajita Kesakambali can best be described as a materialist; he denied the doctrine of rebirth (reincarnation); all humans were wholly physical creatures that return to dust after death. Another philosopher, Sanjaya Belatthaputta, rejected the possibility of any final answer; the best one can to do is cultivate friendship and develop a peace of mind; he believed the truth is relative; discussion and logical discourse leads to acrimony.  These ideas would be taking in up later in the west by the Greek Sophists and 20th century Postmodernists.

The Vedas, a collection of ancient hymns and the most sacred texts of a variety of movements now call Hinduism, were first committed to writing around this time. The Vedas, however, are much older than their first written forms.  Much like Homer's epics and older stories of the Bible, they were transmitted orally from generation to generation for thousands of years before being written down.  The Vedas have a similar function as the Torah or church hymns; they are designed to be recited (or sang) in religious gatherings. They consist of hymns of praise to the worship of deities, directions for performances of ritual sacrifices, and explanations of the symbolic correspondences between the spiritual world of the ritual process and the material world in which the rituals are performed.

Advanced Vedic Studies

Around this time, another group of sacred texts, known as the Upanishads, were also being composed. The Upanishads are not as old as the Vedas.  They were designed for a more sophisticated and exclusive group of people then the more popular Vedas.  They contain the mystical thoughts of religious thinkers who sought meaning through meditation and other super-sensual practices.  Much like how Pythagoras and Plato believed the world we perceive through the senses is illusory, the sages of the Upanishads also believed that our senses led us astray. The sensual world we see and feel is fleeting and impermanent. There is an infinite and everlasting ultimate reality, but our memories and subjective thoughts prevent us from perceiving and understanding it. This ultimate reality is the unseen but all-pervading Brahman, or the Unknowable (or God, for westerners).

The Greek philosophers developed a system of logical deduction to better understand the real truth. The Eastern philosophers developed a different system to achieve a similar goal of knowing the Unknowable. The word Upanishad itself, means 'sitting down' with a teacher to learn lessons. Emphasis is placed not on the ritual performances and mythical stories of the early Vedic religion, but on inner experiences as a path to understanding and immortality.

One of the Upanishadic sages was a philosopher named Yaynavalkya from the kingdom of Videha on the far eastern outskirts of the Ganges valley civilizations.  Yaynavalkya spoke of an immortal spark at the core of every person.  This inner spark, what would be later called Atman (loosely interpreted as a soul by westerners) is the key to understanding the forces that sustains and gives life to the universe. Yaynavlkya, and other Upanishadic sages, replaced the external rites of Vedic ritual as a means of loosing one's sense of ego with rigorous mental discipline.  The first step is to quiet your impulses of desires (hunger, lust, material wealth) and feelings of attachment. These desires are what fix one to the material world and give us an illusion that we are autonomous individuals separate from God and the universe. The process proscribed by the Upanishads for understanding and union with the Unknowable was not quick and easy.  A teacher could not simply give the answers directly, but could only lead one through stages of introspection.

Yajnavalkya compared it to the process to dreaming.  Whereas the waking state is dominated by sense perception and rational thought, dreaming allows one to ignore the rules of the material world and create our own world.  For a short time while we dream, we are released from the constraints of the body.  Even nightmares allow us to become acutely aware of pain. It is deep dreamless sleep, however, that best exemplifies the liberated self.  Sleep, Yajnavaalkya believed, was not oblivion, but a state of unified consciousness, where our fears and desires are removed, even if only for brief time.

This state of unified consciousness is what eastern religions would come to define as Nirvana, Heaven, union with Brahman or moksha.  Heaven is not a pleasant place we are permitted to enter after we die, but rather a realization we arrive at after years of study and practice. 


As it turns out, it is easier to began the process of comprehending the infinite if your mind is clear and you are in a state of serene, detached awareness. There are a group of practices and processes designed to help clear the mind and they are collective known as yoga. What must people now-a-days think of yoga, a series of exercises and stretches to tune the body and improve the health, is just one of several types of yoga first popularized in the west during 19th century. Ancient yoga had a somewhat different function then what most people think it's designed to do.  Yoga is believed to be a very old practice, perhaps first practiced by the Dravidian natives of India and the Indus valley before the arrival of the later Aryan nomads around 1500 BC.

Nevertheless, yoga was further developed by Upanishadic sages who built on a variety of forms, or types, of yoga that all had one common goal: to control the unconscious mind that was believed to be the source of suffering. The word yoga itself is related to the 'yoke' used to control horses.  Instead of horses, the yogis (the yoga experts) harnessed and controlled impulses of the mind: ignorance, egotism, passion, disgust, and lure of material wealth. Once you can control these impulses, you can then begin the spiritual and intellectual journey toward the bliss of moksha

Two components that are common to all types of yoga are sitting and breathing. The student first learns to sit with crossed legs, straight back, and in a completely still position for hours at a time. Mastering this techniques helps break the link between senses and the mind. Slowing and controlling the breath (which is very different from the arrhythmic breathing of ordinary living), produces sensations of calm and feelings of expansiveness, and it has been shown to have a neurological effect.

Yoga was an essential component of a philosophical school known as Samkhya.  The founder of Samkhya was an obscure sage named Kapila.  Very little is known about Kapila. It is unclear when he lived, or even if he was a real person. He shows up in stories such as the Mahabharata, a very popular epic poem composed between 400 BC and 400 AD about a conflict between sons of royal family. Samkhya was a radical, and somewhat heretical, take on the Vedic traditions of Hinduism. It had some superficial similarities to the Pythagorean/Platonic view of nature: there is one pure reality (the spiritual or eternal) and the other material universe we perceive with our sense which is ultimately not real.  The pure and eternal reality beyond change and beyond cause is known as Purusha.  It's a similar concept to Brahman, but Samkhya does not identify Purusha as God; in fact, some would describe Samkhya as an atheistic creed. The other reality, the false reality, is Prakriti, the world we think exists.  Other schools of thought like Buddhism call this reality Maya, the illusion that the world we perceive is real that often comes to life as demon in folktales.

In fact, Buddhism would soon come to compete with these Upanishadic practices and offer a path of enlightenment to a much broader audience. Whereas the Upanishadic practices were restricted to a select group of wealthy people in the very 'caste'-conscious society of ancient India, Buddhism provided a path available to everybody.  For few centuries in ancient India, Buddhism triumphed over Hinduism as the most widespread religious and philosophical worldview, especially during the reign of Asoka the Great who ruled over almost all of the Indian subcontinent from 269 to 232 BC.

 The Mahabharata and other epic tales were composed, in part, to win back the hearts of the masses to the Vedic and Upanishadic traditions. The Mahabharata was essentially a counter-tool to make Hinduism more accessible. The Bhagavad-Gita is the eighteenth book of the Mahabharata and it may have been an independent poem before being incorporated into the Mahabharata.  The story includes a battle that provides a lesson about the conflict between our earthly duties and our spiritual aspirations. Before the battle, the god Krishna provides instructions to one of the warriors in the art of spiritual transcendence and realization of the eternal. 

Promoters of Yoga joined the bandwagon of accessibility as well.  By 200 AD, a yoga master named Patanjali wrote a book known as the Yoga Sutras, a rather simple book with 200 terse passages about clearing the mind and achieving lasting happiness.  The Yoga Sutras was targeted at a wider audience. Patanjali provided ethical principles and easy-to-use tips for breathing and concentrating.  The western-style yoga familiar to most American, although easily dismissed by yoga purists, is very much in the spirit of Patanjali.

Related Lessons
Origins of India, God and Science

Online Resources
Ashtanga Yoga - provides information on yoga, sacred Hindu texts, including a word-for-word translation of the Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.

Internet Sacred Text Archive -the Hindu section is very comprehensive. Here you'll find Vedas, the Upanishads, the epics including the Mahabharata and Bhagavad-Gita, the Yoga Sutras, and plenty of other texts not mentioned here.

Further Reading

Aseem Shukla. 2010. "the Theft of Yoga". Washington Post.
There is some controversy concerning the origins of Yoga, as some scholars claim it predates Hinduism.  Aseem Shukla is the co-founder of the Hindu American Foundations and takes issue with this claim.  See also the position paper "Yoga Beyond Asana: Hindu Thought in Practice" from the Hindu American Foundation website.
Karan Singh. 1998. Essays on Hinduism. New Delhi: Ratna Sagar.


The Ephemeral Nature of Books and the Origins of Christianity

Jesus said, "Have you found the beginning, then, that you are looking for the end? You see, the end will be where the beginning is. Congratulations to the one who stands at the beginning: that one will know the end and will not taste death."
-The Gospel of Thomas
There are essentially two ways in which we know about events that have happened thousands of years ago. One way is through the relatively recent practice of archaeology: finding and digging up things buried in trash heaps and abandoned settlements long forgotten. The other way is through collective memory pass down through generations, mostly by word-of-mouth, but sometimes people downloaded these memories on an old type of storage medium. Before computers, people wrote down or printed their thoughts on rather bulky devices known as books.

Clay Tablet
Occasionally we find books and other written material in those trash heaps and abandoned settlements that archaeologists find. The usefulness of those books varies depending on how much we can trust what they say is factual, or whether or not we can interpret the language they are written in. Most books do not last very long, but we are quite fortunate that some of the earliest known 'books' dating to around 3500 to 3000 B.C. are tablets in the form of stone, baked clay and other material that last long and preserved well in buried heaps. Archaeologists are also fortunate to find writing on temple walls, government-issued 'bulletin boards' in the form of pillars and stellae announcing the latest news and propaganda of the day.
A set of scrolls

Sometime around 1000 B.C., however, people began to use less durable material like papyrus. Papyrus is a plant that grows wild along the banks of Nile River in Egypt. The Egyptians peeled strips off the bark of the papyrus plant and worked them together into a long thin sheets that they then wrote on with a stylus dipped in a dye. The use of papyrus goes much further back in history, but several events at the beginning of the first millennium BC, like the development of alphabetic writing systems and emerging commercial activities of merchants and artisans, led to the widespread use of papyrus. Later, paper and parchment would replace papyrus, but these were mere modifications that had some conveniences over papyrus. Papyrus was difficult to fold. It was brittle and cracked along uneven lines. It was more often rolled up the long flat sheets and spindled on to scrolls, whereas parchment and paper could be easily folded, cut, and sewed into bindings and covered into forms technically called 'codices' but we come to know them as the familiar book with a hard cover and pages that can be turned.

A Codex
Papyrus scrolls and codices were lighter and more portable then clay and stone tablets, but the same quality that made them convenient for mobile traders and merchants, made it inconvenient for archeology. There is much less written material in the archeological record after 1000 B.C. as a consequence. There are a few exceptions. For one thing, clay tablets and stone pillars continued to be used for official and religious records some time after 1000 B.C. and we do occasionally come across papyrus documents in hot, dry conditions like dessert caves.

So how do we know about most of the books written after 1000 B.C.?

On very rare occasions we do find books preserved from as early as the 3rd or 4th century AD in complete or nearly complete form.  One example of these is the Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest known nearly complete version of the New Testament. This book was preserved in the library of St. Catherine's Monastery on the Sinai peninsula in eastern Egypt until the 19th century when it was removed, without permission, by a German scholar. It had since been separated into several pieces and scattered throughout four different institutions in Europe. Several different pieces eventually found their way to the British Library. The British Library now possesses most of it. Recently, the British Library and some of the other institutions with the 'overdue' pieces have cooperated with St. Catherine's Monastery to provide access to digital images of this manuscript.

For the most part, however, books were copied and recopied over and over again and stored in temples, monastic libraries or private collections. When those original copies got too old, they were 'reissued' in an early form of what today we might call reprints (or re-manuscripted to be more precise). The originals were thrown away (or 'recycled' as kindle). It probably did not occur to them that people in the 20th and 21th century would pay lots of money for them or put them on display in museum. They were just more interested in preserving the contents of the books.

Before the printing press, armies of scribes and monks did the reissuing by hand. Nobody has the original copy of Aristotle's Poetics, St. Augustine's City of God, or even Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The Bodleian Library at Oxford University has quite a few copies of manuscripts (not the originals) that date to the 12th century A.D. and a few that may date to around the 9th or 10th century A.D.  Some of these have been acquired from the monasteries they were copied in, and this probably the best you can do in terms of getting closest to the original sources.

Unfortunately, not only did most ancient books not make it through to the present in their original form, but they did not survive as copies or reprints either. Titles were forgotten and no one cared enough to select them to be recopied, and the originals along with the content were thrown out. In fact, this was the sad fate of most books before printing. One of the most popular comedic playwrights of classical Greece, for example, was a man named Aristophanes who lived from 446 to 386 BC. From other sources written about Aristophanes and his plays, we know he wrote more than 30 plays. We can not be sure exactly how many more he wrote.  Only ten of his plays, however, are still known in their entirety and one is incomplete. Aristophanes was quite popular and well-known in his time. A modern day equivalent would probably be Woody Allen or Nora Ephron. Yet only 1/3 of his works were preserved, and this is actually quite exceptional. Most writers are lucky if they have one entire work preserved.

Secret Knowledge - Gnostics

One factor that contributed to whether or not books survived included being on the winning side of a political or religious conflict. The 27 books of the New Testament, the sacred documents of Christianity, were the result of a great deal of argument and a little bloodshed in the 2nd and 3rd century. In addition to the 27 chosen books, there were at least a 100 more books that didn't make the final cut, mainly because they did not conform to the dominant orthodox view.

One of the most important luminary responsible for deciding the 27 winning books was a man by the name of Irenaeus, a 2nd century bishop of a town that would later be known as Lyons in south France. Nobody is quite sure when he was born but he died around the year 202. Irenaeus made a list of 26 books that he thought would be appropriate reading material for good Christians. Except for a couple of additions and one deletion, they were the same books that would eventually become the official New Testament a couple centuries later.

Irenaeus was known as an apologist and a polemicist. An apologist is someone who tries to defend their beliefs through their writings and other arguments, and a polemicist is some one who tries to convince people that some other belief system is wrong or offensive. In Irenaus's case, he was 'apologizing' to the Romans to convince them of the validity of Christianity, and he was 'polemicizing' against a group a people known as Gnostics. So while Christians were still pleading their case for recognition, they were already arguing against recognition of heretics.

The Gnostic Christians were one of those heretical groups. Gnosticism comes from the Greek word for "knowledge" or "intellectual." Irenaus wrote a book entitled On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis or Against Heresies in about A.D.180 in which he makes his case against the Gnostics. Movements, ideologies, and religions are often defined by what they are not, more then what they stand for. The Gnostics would be help define orthodox Christianity.

Gnosticism was not solely a Christian idea. It had, in fact, derived partly from Greek philosophy, and many of the concepts originated from Plato. It took from Plato and a philosophical school of thought known as Neoplatonism an idea that the truth and reality are not what they seem. In essence, the material world we perceive with our sense is not real, but instead there is a world and reality quite different from the one we think we inhabitant. This is partly how we got our conventional idea of Paradise or Heaven. Orthodox Christians did not reject Neoplatonism and Gnosticism entirely, but Gnostics took a more extreme view.

The Gnostics thought the material world as inherently evil and corrupt, and salvation required a complete rejection of the material world and 'worldly desired' in order to understand the true nature of God. Jesus himself was not a material being but a spirit sent to the corrupt earthly domain to help us. A Christian's life was to be spent learning how to detach oneself from the material world and become Christlike. This form of asceticism required somewhat rigorous mental discipline and the ability to comprehend 'secret knowledge'. The Gnostics survival strategy was to hide from the religious police with secret gatherings and esoteric theology. Many of the Gnostic writings were enigmatic and difficult to interpret. As you might imagine, many of the people attracted to Gnosticism tended to be well-educated. When Irenaus dismissed his opponents and their 'Gnosis' beliefs, it was sort of the modern-day equivalent of calling them intellectual snobs. Interestingly, Gnostics tended to appeal to many women and there were quite a few women in prominent leadership roles in the Gnostic movement.

Until relatively recently, the only knowledge we had of Gnostics was from their opponents, the early orthodox Christians. So naturally, as you might expect, most things they had to say about Gnostics was not very flattering. Like most people on losing side of wars and debates, we get a biased account of their story. There were a few incomplete works here and there, but this gave us a very incomplete picture.

In 1945, however, a farmer near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi along the Nile River found, in a nearby cave, a jar full of books, in the form of papyrus sheets bound in codices. You may recall above that I said must codices used parchment or paper because it's folds easier than papyrus. In the early stages of codex development, however, we do find some papyrus codices and the the Nag Hammadi discovery just happens to be one of the exceptions.

These books contained many 'alternative' version of the Christian gospels and other writings with Gnostic themes. Not all the books were Gnostic accounts, but most of them were. There was also a copy of Plato's Republic; not surprising given the Gnostic's love for Plato. As Gnostics were being pursued by their orthodox brethens, they retreated to marginal parts of the Roman Empire. There were communities of Gnostics that survived for some later years in southern Egypt and there they translated many of their books into the Egyptian Coptic script. These books were hidden in the cave by monks from a nearby monastery sometime soon after an official ban was placed on 'unorthodox' material in 367 AD.  By this time, the Gnostic movement had died out but their books lingered around on bookshelves of monasteries, perhaps for critical study. It's difficult to say why the monks hide them instead of destroying them; it is highly unlikely that they were Gnostics or even sympathizers.  Perhaps they were early supporters of academic freedom.

Even though they were rediscovered in 1945, it was not until some 30 years later that they were translated.  One person responsible for bringing the Gnostic gospels into public attention was the scholar Elaine Pagels. She wrote a popular book about Gnosticism in 1979 called The Gnostic Gospels and has written several other books about Gnosticism since then. Her most recent book Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity came out in 2007. Another of her books The Origin of Satan, published in 1995, argues that the conventional view of Satan was primarily shaped by the orthodox Christians as a way to invalidate the teachings of their competitors, not only the Gnostics, but rabbinical Jews as well.

The Poor Ones - Ebionites

Before Gnosticism, another religious movement would play a significant role in defining and shaping Christianity: it's parent religion Judaism.  At first, Christianity was an indistinguishable variation of Judaism. The people who come to be known as Christians first met in synagogues, read the same sacred texts, and practiced many of the same rituals. It was not that unusually for groups of Jews to form clubs of followers around charismatic teachers or leaders. Jesus was one of many inspirational rabbis with a large following who spawned a movement long after his death.

Even before the 1st century, Jewish synagogues had been established in various parts of the Roman Empire and well-to-do and educated Jews have been rooting themselves in various parts of the Empire.  There were large Jewish communities in Rome and Alexandria and well-known synagogues in Antioch and Ephesus that both rabbinical Jews and Christians would share.

For some reason, there were quite a few outsiders who were interested in Judaism and the synagogues were more then happy to accommodate them.  Most of these interested outsiders were Greeks (or at least Greek-speakers), since most synagogue were in the eastern half of the Roman Empire, and Greek was the lingua franca of the eastern portion of the empire. Most synagogues had a population of affiliate members who, in order to become full-fledged members, would have undergo a variety of initiation rites that would include studying the Torah, eating kosher, and, if you were male, being circumcised. It was that last requirement that keep most Greeks from a complete conversion.

Among the Jewish Christians was a man named Paul, the author of the epistles, or letters, that would become an important part of the New Testament. Paul preached and wrote his letters in the middle of the first century. Paul thought it was unnecessary for new adult converts to be circumcised and so he pushed for a revision of that policy to exempt the new recruits from circumcision and other initiation rites. In the years to follow, that would give the Christian Jews a competitive advantage over the rabbinical school. All those Greeks, Romans, and other outsiders on the waiting list to become Jews would not have to undergo circumcision, as long as they joined the Christian camp.  It did not take very long for the Greek Christians to outnumber the Jewish Christians, and Christianity became a separate religion. But now the Christians had a new problem: now that they were seen as a separate religion, they garnish the attention of Roman officials.

Roman authorities were somewhat tolerate of non-Roman religious movements. They particularly tolerated religions with a lot of tradition, and 'state' religions that were around for centuries. This tolerance helped to keep the peace with countries and people they conquered and incorporated into their growing empire. Judaism was one of several ancient religions that was allowed to thrive due to this early version of a  'grandfather-clause' on religion. It was the new religious movements, the ones that seem to appear out of nowhere and what now-a-days we might call 'cults,'  that the Roman authorities did not trust. Christianity was one of those 'cults.'

The Roman code of religious tolerance did not, however, extend to political ambitions. The Jewish homeland of Judea was ruthlessly attacked and burned several times in the first and second century to destroy budding independence movements.  In fact, Jesus himself was crucified by the Romans because they erroneously thought he was advocating Judean independence. The Jerusalem temple was destroyed in 70 AD and, in the last major attack of 165 AD, the remaining Jewish residents were forced to leave Judea and were replaced by foreigners.

The destruction of the temple would play a major role is changing the structure of Judaism as well as the development of Christianity. Instead of Jewish life and culture being centralized around a big temple in Jerusalem, Judaism became mobile and portable. Smaller intimate synagogues, along with the rabbinical tradition, became more important. Christianity went through it's incubation period in the mobile synagogues of the 1st and 2nd centuries and the church was a direct descendant of the synagogue.

Paul's relaxation of the initiation rites for the Greek Jews was not excepted by everyone, even within the Christian camp. One of those people on the opposition was the brother of Jesus himself, James, sometimes known as James the Just. James was the leader of the Christian congregation in Jerusalem. The Christian congregations in and around Jerusalem tended to be mostly made up of the born-and-raised Jews, they practiced Jewish customs and ate kosher, and later historians would call them Ebionites, a Hebrew named that means something like the "poor ones." Unlike the Gnostic version of Jesus who was all spirit, the Ebionite Jesus was quite the opposite, he was all human. Jesus was an insightful rabbi who just had profound knowledge of God and a process for achieving union with God. The Ebionites did not believe in Jesus' resurrection or the virgin birth. They had their own gospel, now lost, called the Gospel of the Hebrews, which, according to 2nd and 3rd century Christian writers like Irenaeus, was very similar to Matthew's Gospel but is missing the parts about the virgin birth and the resurrection.

In later centuries, when heretical ideas were being suppressed by orthodox Christian, many of the Ebionites fled south to the Arabian dessert.  When Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was exploring different religions, he meet some the Ebionites, and it was from them that Muhammad learned about the humanly Jesus (and probably the practice of infant circumcision as well). Islam, to this day, honors Jesus as an insightful prophet and encourages infants to be circumcised.

The Teacher of Righteousness - Ebionites and Essences

Despite all the political turmoil occurring in and around Judea, or perhaps because of it, the first century was an intellectually creative time in Judea. There were numerous Jewish sects and schools of thoughts trying to make sense of the world. There were various groups of zealots hoping for a successful revolt, there were apocalyptic sects calling for a 'new world order' accompanied by resurrection of the dead, and there were schools calling for a return to traditional values. Two schools mentioned throughout the gospels were the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees were the traditionalists who called for a return to old-fashioned values; ritual, temple worship, and studying the Torah. Immortality and resurrection of the dead were radical new ideas, so the Sadducees were not supporting those. Dust and dust and ashes to ashes is what they believed. The Pharisees believed in resurrection, however, and they were the group responsible for establishing the rabbinical tradition after the destruction of the temple, and they would be the Christians toughest competition, which is the main reason why the Pharisees were presented in such a bad light in the gospels.

Another group included the Essenes. They shared many similarities with the Ebionites.  They sold all their possessions, retreated from the world and moved to dessert communities where they lived modestly in tight-knit communities around the Dead Sea and the Jordan River valley.  John the Baptist, the man who baptized Jesus may, in fact, have been an member of a community of Essenes.

One of those communities known as Qumran stored some documents in the form of papyrus scrolls in a cave near the northwest shores of the Dead Sea. In 1947, not long after the discovery of  the Nag Hammadi library, these documents were discovered by a Bedouin shepard. Most of the documents contain books of the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament, and these copies represent by far the oldest copies of the books of the Bible. There are some Old Testament books in the 4th century; Codex Sinaiticus mentioned above but they are incomplete. The oldest complete copy of the entire Bible is the Codex Vaticanus in the Vatican Library that dates to about 1209 AD. Other documents of the Dead Sea Scrolls describe the origins of the sect and theological musings. It mentions the group is lead by a "Teacher of Righteousness" and opposed by a "Wicked Priest" and a "Spouter of Lies"

There is a great deal of dispute about the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some scholars believe that they were written by other sects and there is a controversial but provocative theory by Robert H. Eisenman that the Ebionites and Essenes were actually one in the same and the Dead Sea Scrolls were written by the Ebionites/Essenes. Eisemann believes the "Teacher of Righteousness" is James, the brother of Jesus, the "Wicked Priest" is the High Priest of Israel and the "Spouter of Lies" is Paul.

Related Lessons
God and Science, Ashurbanipal's Books

Online Resources
The Gnostic Society Library is a good resource for the Nag Hammadi documents

The Gnostic Society Library also contains the good source for the text of the Dead Sea Scrolls. There is also an online exhibit on the the scrolls from the Library of Congress.

A 19th century English translation of Irenaeus' Against Heresies can be accessed from Calvin College's Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

For a fascinating, but somewhat biased account of Jewish developments in the 1st and 2nd century from an ancient historian, see Josephus' works especially his Wars of the Jews

PBS Frontline has a series of videos and a website about the early development of Christianity called From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians.

For the early history of manuscripts, the 19th century writer George Haven Putnam is a good source, and since his works are no longer in copyright, they are freely available from Google Books:
Further Reading
Robert H. Eisenman.1997. James, the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls. 1st American ed. New York: Viking

Elaine Pagels. 1979. The Gnostic Gospels, Vintage Books

Elaine Pagels. 1995. The Origin of Satan, Vintage Books

Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King. 2007. Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity together with Karen L. King, Viking Press


The Triumph of Naturalism and the Legacy of the Weeping Philosopher

Everyone is a naturalist to some degree, whether we admit it or not. Naturalism is a philosophical mindset that says that we can explain how things work in accordance to a consistent yet imperfectly understood set of laws, as opposed to 'supernatural' phenomena that can't be understood no matter how hard we try. Naturalism is not really new; our hunting-gathering ancestors used it when they first made tools to exploit the natural world. It is so important to our survival that it is innately part of us. We may not all be born Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, conservative, liberal, nihilists, Kierkegaardian, Atheists, or even agnostic, but we are, in fact, all born naturalists.

Most people, however, seem to possess an ability to switch on and off this naturalist perspective at will. People who read their horoscope or go to church regularly don't seem to be too conflicted when they study calculus, learn about astronomy at the planetarium, or try to fix their air conditioner. There are even quite a few successful engineers and physicians who believe the world was created by God in six days some 8000 years ago. Other seemingly rational people may recognize the value of supernatural beliefs to lift the spirits or provide comfort in times of need.  Every sane person respects the predictable laws of nature but many people, if not most people, also think, or like to believe, that naturalism has its limits. There is a wide range of disagreement over where those limits occur, however.

Enlightenment and the Modern World

One may argue that the world took a great leap forward in our understanding of nature towards the end of the Middle Ages. When pale-skinned barbarians overran the Roman Empire, a small group of educated Romans retreated to isolated islands and swampy locales off the eastern coast of Italy. For several centuries, these people managed to carve out an niche and take advantage of trading routes and commercial enterprises unhindered by despotic regimes. They became the wealthy merchants, bankers, and artisans who funded the Italian Renaissance of the 1500s. Many of these people turned naturalism into a forward-thinking worldview, optimistic about the future, putting trust and faith in the individual to think rationally, nourishing creativity and innovation, and emphasizing above all the power of education and a process of thinking that led to our ability to control and manipulate nature. These merchants and artisans, and their intellectual descendants, were inspired by technologies like printing, metalworking, and harnessing energy that triggered the industrial revolution. They borrowed a handy numbering system from Muslim and Indian traders and introduced double-entry bookkeeping (also borrowed from Arab and Indian traders) which helped put their finances in order. Naturalism was not invented exclusively by modern Europeans, however, but rather borrowed many ideas from a more sophisticated world to the south. Being open to views outside their 'comfort zone' was, after all, another quality that separated them from their more uneducated and superstitious neighbors.

The European merchants became rich and powerful enough to challenge the institutions the ruled the western world for centuries, like the church and aristocracy. Some of them even bought their way into the aristocracy and church. They used their wealth to fund and support artists they liked and scientific research that served their best interests. The Medici family, a wealthy family of merchants and bankers from Florence, Italy, for example, provided financial support to Leonardo de'Vinci and Galileo Galilei. Galileo dedicated the Starry Messenger, his 1610 treatise on his telescope observations of the Moon and Jupiter, to his patron Cosimo de' Medici. The Medici family would inspire other wealthy merchants and industrialists to put their money in science, education, and technology: Andrew Carnegie, the Rockefeller family, Howard Hughes, and even nowadays, Bill Gates and the Koch brothers.

Naturalism was the driving force behind the European explorations of the 15th and 16th centuries, the conquests of the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the colonization of the rest of the world in the 18th and 19th centuries. Naturalistic and rational thought would drive not only the industrial revolution but the military strategies and apparatuses that changed the world, for better or for worst.

Naturalism's Dark Ages

The merchants were not always rich and powerful, nor were they always respected very much. During much of the Middle Ages, they were often seen as sinister and greedy by the more respectable members of an agrarian European society. Mercantilism and trade was a way of survival in an atmosphere of hostility at it worse, or indifference at it's best. Some of the merchants were Muslims, Jews, Christians with proto-protestant beliefs, foreigners, and other outcasts. The one fortunate advantage they had in Europe was the unique system of feudalism. The fragmentary nature of European feudalism and lack of regulatory controls allowed the merchants of Europe a certain degree of 'academic' freedom that they did not enjoy in other parts of the world like China, India, and the Islamic world.

These parts of the world were characterized by centralized forms of social organizations in which learning thrived (and were much more tolerant to outcasts), but learning was monopolized by established institutions. One of those institutions was the university in the Moorish city of Cordoba in present-day Spain. In the 11th and 12th century, it was in the Islamic world where science and technology was advancing, while in Christian Europe, the church suppressed free thought and heresy while 'terrorists' of the day were the Crusaders and other fanatics who made occasional raids on the Middle East and Jewish ghettos.

There were thriving centers of learning throughout the Islamic world but Cordoba was the one must accessible to Europeans. Cordoba’s university is one of the oldest in the world and was particular known for its science related fields; astronomy, mathematics and medicine. Cordoba also had over 70 public libraries, with one reportedly housing over 500,000 manuscripts. Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived and studied in relative peace and prosperity at the university and libraries of Cordoba.

The Mother of Gothic Cathedrals

When a new regime replaces an older one, they often place a religious institution on top of the religious institutions of the older regime. The Moors put a mosque where there was previously a church. The Vandals put that church on a Roman temple. When the Christians conquered Cordoba in 1236, they were so impressed by the mosque that they kept must of the structure and put a cathedral right in the middle of it. One of the innovative architectural features of the Mosque was the double arch which supported more weight and allowed for higher ceilings. The double arch was an essential feature of the the Gothic cathedrals that popped all over Europe soon after the conquest; yet another way in which the Islamic world educated Christian Europe.

The so-called 'ground-zero mosque,' the Islamic community center to be built in lower Manhattan near the World Trade Center site was inspired by Cordoba's historically tolerant climate (It was to be originally named the Cordoba House before being changed to Park51). Interestingly, the writer and activist responsible for implementing some of the ideas that were later abandoned for a more traditional mosque, Feisal Abdul Rauf, is a Sufi Muslim, a heretic in the eyes of Islamic terrorists. Far from being a symbol of victory, the community center would have actually been detrimental to the aims of terrorist extremists.

Peter Abelard

One of those students who spent a lot of time in the libraries of Cordoba was the Breton scholar and philosopher Pierre (or Peter) Abelard. Abelard, along with hordes of other scholars from the Christian world to the north began to take more of an interest in the intellectual culture of the Islamic world and some of them translated the books into Latin. Abelard was interested in the investigative approach of the Islamic sciences, writing "the further south you go, the more they know. They know how to think. From the Arabs I have learned one thing: if you are led by authority, that means you are led by a halter."

Abelard wrote an influential and controversial book called Sic et Non (Yes and No) in which he expresses his ideas. Partly inspired by Islamic science and partly based on Aristotle's work on logic known as the Organon, one of the books rediscovered by Europeans in the Islamic libraries, Abelard introduces logic to medieval Europe. One of the central themes was to question authority and doubt everything. "By doubting we come inquiry; by inquiring we perceive the truth." His systematic questioning of the authority of the church and the Bible got him into a little bit of trouble, but his ideas would soon spread to the newly founded universities of Italy in the 12th century, the same universities that received financial support from the Medici family and other bankers and merchants.

The Ionian Merchants

Although naturalism and mercantilism seemed to warm the hearts and minds of Europeans in the late Middle Ages, it's roots go much further back. In the 6th century BC, in a group of cities along the Mediterranean coast of present-day Turkey, traders and merchants thrived in an atmosphere free from relativity totalitarian regimes of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Even though each city had a rather autonomous governing unit, they did form loose confederations. One of the confederations was Ionian League which consisted of about ten cities on the coast and some on nearby islands. The Ionian League cities were not the first merchant-based society. Aramenean and the Phoenician merchants predate them. There was, in fact, a great deal of exchange of ideas between the Phoenicians and Greeks, mostly notably the alphabet, and the Phoenicians had much to do with success of the Ionians. But we have much more written documents from Greek writers that survived until the modern, so whether they deserve it or not, the Ionians often get the most credit for first articulating the naturalist worldview.

One of the Ionian cities was Miletus, home to Thales. Thales founded a 'school' of thought that was further promoted by his followers and disciples well into the Classical era of Hellenistic Greece and Rome. Contrary to popular belief, ideas, ideologies, and worldviews do not usually arise miraculously out of the minds of lone geniuses selflessly contemplating the meaning of life. They are influenced and shaped by the world around them and often succeed or fail by the support and patronage they receive. The merchants, masons, and tradespeople of Miletus had much to do with the success of the worldview best described as materialism or naturalism. The Miletusian naturalist philosophers were not atheists but they rejected, or at least questioned, explanations that allude to gods and goddesses. They began to explain phenomena in naturalistic terms.


Another naturalist by the name of Heraclitus lived in the city of Ephesus sometime around 500 B.C. Ephesus was the 'second city' of the Ionian League. Ephesus was famous for it's Temple of Artemis, first built in 550 B.C. The Temple of Artemis was one the Seven Wonders of the World, although it was rebuilt several times in it's long history, so the version that was named a wonder was probably not the same one that Heraclitus was familiar with.

We don't know much about Heraclitus and much of what we do know come from writers and philosophers who lived centuries after him.What we do know about him is that he wrote at least one book which he wrote on a single scroll and deposited it into the Temple of Artemis. Temples were the libraries (and sometimes learning institutions) of the day. This book no longer exists but we have clues of what he wrote through later Greek and Roman writers who referenced and recited it. It seems to have been a written as a series of pithy proverbs that somehow outlines a coherent perspectives. Some commentaries, notably Diogenes Laertius claim it was written in three sections: cosmology, ethics, and theology, although it is not quite clear that he means Heraclitus himself or later commentaries derived these three section. Theophrastus, Aristotle's favorite student, seems to think it was an incomplete hodgepodge of notes (or maybe he just did not have possession of the final draft).

On a more personal note, there is much written about his life and temperament. Whether factual or not, Heraclitus was said to have been a rather cranky old misanthrope who spent most of his life avoiding people and may be have been suffering from depression. Hence, he was often referred to as the 'weeping philosopher'. He was quite a shameless elitist and thought must people were stupid, especially those who didn't agree with him. He came from an aristocratic background and was in line to be appointed the 'king' of the Ionian League, although this was mainly a powerless figurehead position, which may partly explain why he declined it and allowed his younger brother to take it.

The foundation of Heraclitus' philosophy is essentially threefold: (1) the universe is constantly changing but (2) there is an underlining order to it, and (3) this order is achieved through struggle of opposing forces. To illustrate the first idea, he used a river as an example, pointing out that if someone stepped in a river at the some location on two different occasions, it would not be the same river because the water in the river is different. On a similar note, the chemical elements that make up our physical bodies are constantly changing, by replacing older elements with newer ones with the food we eat. From a material standpoint, we are not the person we were last week. "I am as I am not," Heraclitus was quoted as once saying.

So what makes us who we are? This is explained by Heraclitus' second concept: the underlying order. He invokes Logos as the principle that provides order. Logos is the 'word' or 'method' that governs everything. It is a unifying principle that explains a myriad variety of natural phenomena. The modern English world 'Logic' comes from Logos, and it is the basis for the what we now know as the scientific method, or at least the rational part of the method.

Religion and even many non-religious world-views provide us comfort because they identify some permanent fixture or constant to grasp on to while the universe around us is constantly changing in seemingly unpredictable ways. Even modern science has been obsessed with constants, bases, indestructible elements or atoms in which the universe is constructed, 'first principles' that underline everything, or a 'theory of everything.'

What makes the naturalistic world-view unique is that instead of a substance or a being, the 'central dogma' is a process; a method or an intangible concept: the Word or Logos. In the similar way in which some people say love makes the world go 'round, naturalism says logic makes the world go 'round. With a bit of irony, the central principle of naturalism and materialism is something that is not natural or material at all, but literal. A modern understanding might include the concept of entropy, or the energy needs to put things in order. The data needed to build databases, the words need to create a novel, and the genetic components needed to create life are all intangible concepts.

Naturalism and science welcome change, even embrace it, not only in the stuff of the universe, but also our knowledge of the stuff. This is illustrated by Heraclitus favorite element, fire. Heraclitus, like all Greeks, accepted the four 'elements' that make up the universe: earth, water, air, and fire.; Fire was different, however. According to Heraclitus, it has transformative powers. It can turn water into air and earth into water. It was more fundamental then the other elements. We now know that fire is not an element after all but rather represents a process in which one chemical compound is, in fact, being transformed into another. When oil or wood, for example, is burning, complex carbon compounds are being transformed into carbon dioxide and water (while releasing energy).

A Timeless Truth, Logos, and Dharma

Heraclitus stressed that this process is not his own invention, but a timeless truth available to anyone who was receptive to the way the world itself is. Indeed, Heraclitus may have been influenced by a new religion. By the time Heraclitus wrote his thesis, the Ionian cities had been a vessel of the Persian Empire which had conquers the Ionian cities some 50 years before. The Persians had introduced Zoroastrianism to the world and fire was a central symbol of Zoroastrianism.

Zoroastrianism, in turn, borrowed heavily from Hinduism, a set of religious and philosophical worldviews from India. Many Hindu and eastern philosophies embrace the concept of the Dharma. To many Hindus, the Dharma was not anything that anyone came up with, but it to was a timeless truth, the original philosophy, something that always existed since the beginning of time. The Dharma is defined as the state of Nature and the laws that define it.

Many eastern traditions, like Buddhism, believe the Dharma, or understanding the Dharma, is essential to achieving wisdom and 'enlightenment'. Investigations of nature through understanding causal relationships between various phenomena is, in fact, an important part of the practice of Buddhism. The concept of the Dharma could very well have lead to, or at least influenced, the Greek concept of Logos.

Further Reading on Naturalism:


Satipatthana Sutta: the Four Paths of Mindfulness. Translated from the Pali by Jeffrey S. Brooks.

Heraclitus: the Cosmic Fragments. A Critical Study with Introduction, Text, and Translation by G.S. Kirk. Cambridge University Press, 1954

Peter Abelard. Sic et non: A Critical Edition. Ed. Blanche B. Boyer and Ricard McKeon. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976.


Same Harris. 2004. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason.New York: W.W.Norton & Co.
Check out Sam Harris' blog.
Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. 2010. The Grand Design. Bantam Books.

Carl Sagan. 1995. The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.New York: Random House.


James Burke. 1985. The Day the Universe Changed. London Writers Ltd.
This is actually a companion book to a BBC series now available on DVD
Davies, Paul. 2007. "Taking Science on Faith". New York Times. Nov. 24.

Richard Lewontin. 1997.  "Billions and Billions of Demons" (A review of Sagan's Demon-Haunted World). The New York Review of Books.Jan. 9. Also available here for free

Timothy Williamson. 2011. "What is Naturalism?" New York Times Opinion Pages (the Stone). Sept. 14.
See also Alex Rosenberg's response "Why I am a Naturalist" and Professor Williamson's response to that one: "On Ducking Challenges to Naturalism"

and a few mild "Heresies"

David Eagleman. 2009. Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. New York: Pantheon.
David Eagleman is a Neurologists defined Possiblilianism, an rational alternative to New Atheism. See Eagleman talk at TEDx Houston.
Stephen Jay Gould. 1999. Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. New York: Ballatine Books.
Stephan Jay Gould advocated the idea of non-overlapping magisteria or NOMA, proposing that the tools of science stay clear of theological issues and religion stay clear of scientific issues like questioning evolution. Several decades earlier, the philosopher of science Karl Popper came up with the concept of falsifiability. According to this concept, any valid scientific theory contains within it the conditions under which it may be shown to be false. The existence of God, for example, can not be studied scientifically because the idea cannot contain an explanation of the conditions under which the theory could be proven false. There are many other questions, especially in the areas of ethics, aesthetics, and spirituality, that remain outside the scope of science. Gould proposed NOMA as a courtesy to each side to avoid conflict, but Popper identified a limitation that scientific inquiry has no control over. Science can provide definitive answers for a limited number of questions. Religion and philosophy can cover a wider variety of questions, but they can only speculate.
John Horgan. 2003. Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Also check out John Horgan's blog for Scientific American
Chet Raymo. 2008. When God Is Gone Everything Is Holy: The Making of a Religious Naturalist. Sorin Books, Notre Dame, IN

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