Mesopotamian Religion: Prelude to Axial Age

Between 800 and 200 BCE, a remarkable series of sages, mystics, and thinkers gave rise to the transcendental traditions that are known today as “world religions.” In 1949, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers identified several themes common to these traditions and described this  six hundred year period as the Axial Age: “These movements were ‘axial’ because of their pivotal importance. Monotheism emerged among the Jews, the philosophical foundations of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism were laid down in northern India; Confucianism and Daoism appeared in China, while the Western intellectual tradition [i.e., Socrates-Plato] began in Greece” (Strathern 2009).

These ostensibly disparate movements had much in common. Suffering and death are central concerns. Given these concerns, it is not surprising that all devise methods for transcending suffering and death. Such transcendence, whether in this world or life or the next, becomes an ethical matter and moral issue.

Why did these related ideas appear in several places in such short order? Because these traditions arose in widely disparate places and originated among people who were not in contact with one another, we know it was not a matter of cultural diffusion or idea migration. There are several competing (and complementary) hypotheses, most of which revolve around change, dislocation, and anomie.

The few thousands of years preceding the Axial Age were an especially turbulent time in human history; warfare, urbanization, disease, and famine were operating full-tilt and on a scale never before seen. People everywhere were at a loss and legitimacy was in short supply. Under such conditions, it would be surprising if something like the Axial movements did not appear. During times of immense and protracted crisis, intellectuals will often generate new and paradigm shifting ideas.

But before such breakthroughs can occur, the ground must be prepared. Although Axial movements were innovative, they did not simply appear sua sponte. To the extent they were reformist or reactionary, they were backward looking and dependent on the past for comparative appeal. In “Ancient Mesopotamian Religion: The Central Concerns,” renowned ancient historian Thorkild Jacobsen summarizes that past by dividing it into three thematic and millennial epochs:

Fourth Millennium BCE — Famine

“Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread”

The fear at the very roots of existence that long ago, down through the fourth millennium, gave to the religious response in Mesopotamia its major direction would seem to have been a simple one: fear of starvation. Early Mesopotamian economy was unquestionably a remarkable achievement, able for the first time to provide sufficient food so that large numbers of humans could congregate in cities. But it was also a precarious and uncertain economy, for it was based on artificial irrigation, the most touchy and tricky basis imaginable, nervously reacting to vagaries of nature and man alike.

And the character of their religion as we know it bears this out. The powers to whom they turned were powers in and behind their primary economics on which life depended: fishing, herding, agriculture, as even the briefest look at the character of the chief gods of their cities will show. [T]heir cults were to insure the presence of these essential powers for fertility, produce, and food.

Third Millenium BCE — War

“Preserve Us From Evil”

As the settled areas of the country grew and joined, the protection that had been afforded by relative isolation was no longer there and fear of enemy attack, death or slavery, became a part of life ever present in the depth of consciousness. The intensity of the danger and of the fear it engendered can be gauged by the great city-walls that arose around the towns in this period and the staggering amount of labor that must have gone into them.

For a shield against danger men looked to the now vitally important institutions of collective security, the great leagues and their officers, and particularly to the new institution of kingship as it took form and grew under the pressures of these years. The new concept opening up, as it did, a possibility of approach to the element of majesty in the divine, was early applied to the gods and it profoundly influenced the religious outlook. The gods, seen as kings and rulers, were no longer powers in nature only, they became powers in human affairs — in history.

Second Millennium BCE — Guilt

“Forgive Us Our Trespasses”

[W]ith the beginning second millennium the personal fortunes of the individual worshiper, his fears of personal misfortune, anxieties in illness and suffering, begin to be voiced adding a personal dimension to the relation with the divine. [Because of famine and war, it appears this personal] god has abandoned the worshiper and lost interest in him. He realizes that the blame lies with himself-pleading, however, that no man is perfect and asks to be shown his faults, his transgressions, that he may confess them before his god and be forgiven. And the god is moved by his contrition and takes him back into favor.

There is here the beginnings of a searching of the heart: the insight gained in the preceding millennium that the divine stands for, and upholds, a moral law is now bearing fruit in a realization of individual human responsibility, but also of innate human inability to live up to that responsibility. [T]he question of man’s acceptability before his god — the problem of the righteous sufferer — led on to realization of man’s finiteness and the altogether finite character of his insights and his moral judgments.

During the first millennium BCE Mesopotamian religions stagnated, perhaps because for thousands of years they had always been concerned with that which was immanent or present in this world. If the divine was present in the world, few (other than the rich and powerful) seemed to be feeling it. It was time for something new. The stage was thus set for Axial transcendence.


Strathern, Alan (2009). Karen Armstrong’s Axial Age: Origins and Ethics The Heythrop Journal, 50 (2), 293-299 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00413.x

Jacobsen, Thorkild (1963). Ancient Mesopotamian Religion: The Central Concerns Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 107 (6), 473-484

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13 thoughts on “Mesopotamian Religion: Prelude to Axial Age

  1. tony in san diego

    Thanks for this very interesting article. I am writing a historical novel about the late fourth century in Rome, when this axial change finally reached the west. The Roman civic religion was an ancient cult, of the type described, and the change in the fourth century to Christianity, was late, and radical.

  2. olga taylor

    Hi Cris. So interesting. I just googled “genealogy of religion” and your blog popped up at the top of the page. What i was looking for might be slightly different from your research interests. I was looking for historical evidence of how major religions might have cross-bred into one another, e.g. Judaism plus paganism -> orthodox Christianity (although Christ himself was neither christian nor pagan). orthodox Christianity + rationalism = protestantism. and a bizarre conjecture: Hinduism + gnostic Christianity = zen Buddhism.

    Can you point me to some good sources? Thank you! Olga.

  3. Cris Post author

    Hi Tony — your novel sounds interesting; I think we need more than simply history and scholarship when it comes to Rome. I was sorely disappointed when HBO and the BBC decided to discontinue their “Rome” miniseries after only two seasons. We need more things like this, including novels.

    When it comes to religion in Rome during the first four centuries A.D., the ground is rather slippery and hotly contested among historians. Do you think there was something that can be called “The Roman civic religion” (in the singular) during this period of time? The range of religious practices in the Empire was immense, and often depended on who you were (plebe, aristocrat, soldier, merchant, etc.) and where you were (east, west, or frontier provinces).

    Christianity was of course growing during these centuries, primarily in the peripheries, but there seems to have been some movement toward universalism and transcendentalism even before the arrival or acceptance of Christianity. The Mithras cult is a prime example. I recommend reading some of Rodney Stark’s historical work on early Christianity in the empire; he disputes the idea that Christianity was late arriving or radical.

  4. Cris Post author

    Whew! There is nothing like asking big questions that could take a lifetime of research before getting answers. Let’s try to make this soluble and break down your questions.

    1. Did major religions cross-breed with one another? To a certain extent. There is the Abrahamic line running from Judaism to Christianity to Islam. And the Hindu line running to Buddhism. And the Chinese line running from Confucianism to Daoism. These are the primary lines of early history, and all are to some extent what we might call Axial traditions. With increasing trade and contact between the societies professing such beliefs, there are possible points of contact and influence. But each of these traditions has a primary geographic locus or zone of primary influence, and each tradition was more or less well established when points of contact became more prevalent, so there is less syncretism or mixing than one might expect.

    2. Judaism plus paganism to orthodox Christianity? Doubtful. Judaism was not, in its early history, monotheistic — it was polytheistic (i.e., “pagan”) and has deep roots in Mesopotamian religions, primarily Babylonian and Hittite. It also was influenced by Persian Zoroastrianism, which was monotheistic and Manichean. If you go to my Resources tab, you will find some articles touching on this: “Yahweh-Becomes-King” and “Greco-Roman-Religion-History.” Early Christianity in general (I see no reason to distinguish between orthodox and other varieties) was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, primarily Socrates/Plato. This is why Nietzsche quipped that “Christianity is Platonism for the people,” a remark that has more truth to it than most will admit.

    3. Christianity plus rationalism equal Protestantism? Even more doubtful. Although I am not an expert in the history and causes of the Reformation, there are thousands of books and even more articles on this subject. There are worse places to start than Diarmud MacCullough’s “The Reformation: A History,” though it is heavy reading and long. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone assert that “rationalism,” generally considered to be a product of the 18th century Enlightenment, somehow caused the 16th century Protestant Reformation. The time order is wrong.

    4. Hinduism plus gnostic Christianity equal Buddhism? While I don’t know if this idea is bizarre, it surely is wrong. Zen has its origins in late 19th century Japanese intellectualism and nationalism; its history is fascinating, though little known in the West to those who imbibe the Westernized export (i.e., commercialized) versions. Almost nothing was known about gnostic Christianity at that time. It was not until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls that we began learning anything substantive about the gnostics. I assume you have read Elaine Pagels book on the Gnostic Gospels? I have several good articles on the origins and history of Zen Buddhism, which I would be happy to send you. Just drop me an email.

  5. olga taylor

    maybe zen is not the word — although i am pretty sure it is — i was referring to Korean (?) method of “hard practice”, koan, and instant enlightenment that surely goes back much further that 19th century. So if there had been any connection with gnostics, it would have been by direct contact in early AD, not through dead sea scrolls.

  6. Cris Post author

    My understanding is that if it is Zen, it is of Japanese origin. Here is one of the better articles on the subject:,%20Zen%20Nationalism.pdf

    Early Christian gnosticism developed largely between the first and third centuries AD, and was confined primarily to small esoteric sects. Their writings were suppressed and not widely disseminated. By the fourth to fifth century AD, knowledge of them was largely gone, not to be rediscovered until 50 years ago.

    It is highly doubtful there was any contact between early gnostics and Korea, so the earlier period of possible influence or mixing is quite unlikely. I can’t say whether the later rediscovery of gnostic materials influenced Buddhist practices in Korea over the last 50 years or so.

  7. tony in san diego

    certainly there were myriad personal religions available in Rome, but the civic religion, carried out by the civic leaders, was the overriding cult….it ruled the calendar, and established the feast days. All private religious practitioners kept the civic religious schedule (except the Christians). It was kind of the way people call America a “Christian” nation, even though any or no religion is available to anyone.

  8. tony in san diego

    p.s. if you are interested in reading the novel, called Burned Books, let me know where to email it. It is about the destruction of the Serapeion in Alexandria by Theophilus and his Christians.

    The sequel, The City of Gods, is in the works, about the suicide of Valentianian II and the consolidation of the Christian empire under Theodosius I.

  9. Cris Post author

    I would quite like to read it. Shoot me an email (cris at genealogyreligion dot net) and I’ll give you an address.

  10. Cris Post author

    This is my understanding also. I have some good academic articles on this topic if you are interested.

  11. olga taylor

    Thank you for the article. It’s about Zen revival in the West, though, not about the origins of zen Buddhism.

  12. Cris Post author

    Sorry about that; I was thinking you were looking for a possible nexus between Zen and gnosticism, which as a matter of dating would have to be relatively recent, as in the last century, so thought this might be a place to look, if only because I don’t see how knowledge of gnosticism could have been carried to India or China where zen practice(s) may have originated.

  13. Mike

    There are a couple of interesting videos done by the BBC available on youtube that investigate the possibility that Jesus’ missing years were spent in Kashmir studying Buddhism. If this were true, it would certainly account for the similarities between the Book of Thomas and Buddha’s teachings.

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