A scholarly account explores the development of Judaism and Christianity in response to a pagan world as well as the emergent distinction between religion and superstition.
The historical arc of Christianity—from a persecuted sect of radicals to the official faith of Rome—raises serious questions about what precisely distinguishes true religions from false ones, myth from reality, and a dominant spiritual metaphysic from the superstitious practice of magic. Soltes (Mysticism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, 2008) attempts to answer these questions by looking at the ways in which Christianity and Judaism evolved out of a “Hebrew-Israelite-Judaean tradition” of which they both claimed to be the proper heirs. Their dual development was at least partially borne out of their confrontation with pagan competitors not only for disciples, but also for political legitimacy from the Roman authorities. The author provides a captivating and philosophically searching analysis that shows that a rigorous theoretical distinction between religion and magic—the feature all regnant religions refer to when trumpeting their superiority—is impossible to draw. In the absence of such demonstrable traits, triumph becomes a function of political power, of who gets to make pronouncements “addressing the divine aspect” of the sacred. Soltes furnishes a wide-ranging history—the display of erudition is breathtaking—that considers not only the nature of religion itself, but also the unfolding of the term “magic” as a mark of illegitimacy and part of a terminology strategy to discredit the spiritual other. The author brilliantly discusses the best of Judeo-Christianity’s “serious competition,” including traditions like Roman Mithraism, which likely influenced the nature of Christianity just as it was surpassed by it. Soltes also assesses the gradual movement toward monotheism and the central role of demonology in Christianity—part of the religion’s particular success stemmed from its articulation of a compelling adversary. Further, the author is careful to avoid overconfidently compartmentalizing historical causes—he candidly discusses the way in which a common theological amalgamation makes neat distinctions nearly impossible.
Deep and historically scrupulous, this book is an important contribution to the study of comparative religion.