An unsatisfying survey of dogmatic doings in the ancient world by a popularizer of matters biblical.
L.A. Times book critic and novelist Kirsch (Moses, 1998, etc.) takes a resolutely gods-for-clods tack here, opening with an instantly off-putting advertisement: “On September 11, 2001, we were reminded once again of the real meaning of the 3000-year-old conflict between monotheism and polytheism”—the putative subject here. Were the Twin Towers staffed by druids and animists? Atta and company, after all, were definitively monotheistic. Never mind the answer, for Kirsch has already galloped off to a merry disquisition on the violence that awaits readers of the Bible, where holy war and martyrdom are commonplace and the deserts of the Holy Land flow with rivers of blood. Kirsch settles down for a long treatment of the misunderstandings and unpleasantries that governed interactions among the polytheistic Greeks and Romans and the famously “stiff-necked” Jews, the former wanting “to make sure that they did not forfeit the blessing of the right god by offering worshipping to all gods,” the latter certain that their celestial ruler was the one, true, and incontestable deity. The second view was, of course, inherited by the Christians, who had their own unhappy dealings with the Romans for a few centuries until Julian the Apostate met a Persian (or, Kirsch conjectures, perhaps Christian) spear on a dusty Iranian battlefield and in farewell, gasped, “Thou hast conquered, Galilean!” All well and good, but Kirsch is working well-plowed ground. His analysis, at once sensationalized (“When the Taliban dynamited the Buddhist statuary of Afghanistan, they were heeding the call of the Hebrew Bible”) and incomplete, shades into insignificance next to recent work such as Elaine Pagels’s Beyond Belief and Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities (both 2003).
Old stories ineffectively told. Now, monotheism vs. monotheism: therein hangs a tale. . . .