The Axial Age

Paper #4 – February 3rd, 2017

The Greco-Roman World: Arcadia, Debt & the Early Church

David Graeber describes “The Axial Age” as a time that gave rise to:

“Something akin to a drop-out culture, with ascetics and sages fleeing to the wilderness or wandering from town to town seeking wisdom; in each too, they were eventually reabsorbed into the political order as a new kind of intellectual or spiritual elite, whether as Greek sophists, Jewish prophets, Chinese sages, or Indian holy men” (Debt, 224).

Focusing on the years 600 BC – 600 AD, and drawing from this past month’s readings in O’Brien’s Atlas of World History, Eisenberg’s The Ecology of Eden, Graeber’s Debt, and Gonzalez’s Story of Christianity, put together a one-two page timeline (12 pt font, single-spaced) of the key events in this process. What are the key political, economic, and ecological events that these Axial Age religions and philosophies are responding to? How does Christianity, in particular, develop in its early years, and what changes take place as the way of Jesus is increasingly absorbed into the dominant Roman political order?

This is your interpretation and narration of the time period. Highlight what you see as the key struggles and shifts that take place along the way. 


The Greco-Roman World: Arcadia, Debt & the Early Church

600 BCE – 600 CE: “The Axial Age”

“Let us designate this period as the ‘axial age.’ Extraordinary events are crowded into this period… all philosophical trends, including skeptisism and materialism, sophistry and nihilism, were developed.” Karl Jaspers, Way to Wisdom, 1949.

By the beginning of the Axial Age humankind has seen the development of cities, societal hierarchies, wars, slavery, the development of money, markets, trade, and taxation systems to support city infrastructures and the elites who run them. This always caused a divide between the elites/oppressors and the poor/oppressed. These developments occurred simultaneously and separately in the Mediterranean, the Fertile Crescent, India and China. “Everywhere, too, we find philosophers who react to this by exploring ideas of humanity and the soul, attempting to find a new foundation for ethics and morality.” (Debt, p. 248)

Prior to the Axial Age the Hebrews had settled in Palestine and had become Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Israel had been conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BCE resulting in an assimilation of the Israelite peoples (what became known as the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel). The Babylonians conquered Judah in 587 BCE, destroying Jerusalem and the Temple. The elite, ruling Jews were marched from Judah 800 miles into exile in Babylon. Whilst in Babylon the Jewish began to write down and record their oral history. This became the first books of the Old Testament. By 539 BCE the Persians had conquered Babylon and the Jewish people were able to return to Judah. They rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, funded by the Persian Empire. Having escaped the evils of oppressive empire, empire now became the ‘good guy.’ The Jewish people struggled between the influence of civilized empire and the ancient ways of Abraham and Moses outside of empire. This would continue as a pattern with each new empire that conquered them.

By the fifth century BCE Greece had defeated the Persian Empire during the Persian Wars in 499-479 BCE, and via Alexander the Great began a conquest of lands that stretched from Greece in the west to the Indus River in the east. Alexander colonized the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem. Plato lived during the later part of the century and wrote philosophical works that would affect western civilization and Christian doctrine to this day– beliefs in the immutability of God and the evil nature of the body.

Soon, the emerging Roman Republic was conquering the Greeks. By 14 CE the Romans ruled nearly every part of Europe, North Africa, Egypt, Asia Minor, and Palestine. It is then that Jesus is born in Nazareth in 4 BCE. Jesus reminds the Jewish people to reject the oppressive nature of empire, and the empire crucifies Jesus under the rule of Tiberius. Those Jews who believe Jesus is the messiah became His followers, later to be known as ‘Christians.’ Initially, during the first century CE, Jews and Christians were seen as parts of the same Jewish religion. Around 50 CE, the Jews were expelled from Rome by Claudius for disorderly conduct and Christians distanced themselves from the Jews. Christianity began to be seen as a separate religion. Persecutions ensued as Christians refused to worship and sacrifice to the Roman gods. In 66 CE a great Jewish rebellion broke out and by 70 AD Roman legions were called in to restore order. They took Jerusalem and destroyed the second Temple. In their own ways, Christians and Jews were rebelling against the oppressive ways of the empire. By the end of the first century CE all of the books of the New Testament had been written and the thirty-nine books in the Old Testament had been finalized by the Jews.

Persecutions of Christians continued at different intervals during the first four centuries CE. Many people converted to Christianity over time, partly due to the witness of the martyrs during persecutions. Christianity faced other threats as well– Platonism, Stoicism, Gnosticism, Marcionism, Montanism, Donatism, Docetism, and the quandary of what to do with lapsed believers who had buckled under persecution. Debates arose as to who was a Christian, the nature of God, the evil nature of matter, the immortality of the soul, moral standards that should be adhered to, the nature of Jesus’ body and His divinity, and which Christian writings were authoratative. The ‘apologists’ emerged– Origen, Iranaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr and Tertullian– to dispel erroneous rumors and define the nature of Christian worship and beliefs. The concept of apostolic succession was formulated along with the Apostle’s Creed. Empire was affecting the Christian faith.

In 285 CE the emperor Diocletian split the Roman Empire into Western and Eastern halves. There were now two capitals– Rome and Constantinople. Eventually these become the seats of the Roman Catholic Church in the West, and the Orthodox Church in the East. The last and worst persecution breaks out under Diocletian. Following this Constantine came to power and converted to Christianity. The persecutions end with Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 CE. Constantine convenes the Council of Nicea in 325 CE and at the Council the church formulated the New Testament Canon, standard readmission of the lapsed believers, a resolution to the Arian Controversy and the Nicene Creed formulated to reject Arianism. Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire.

By the fourth century CE the early church fathers had emerged– the Cappadocians, Ambrose of Milan, John Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine of Hippo, who defend the Nicene faith and define further the theology of the church faith. It’s interesting to note that many of them ventured into the wilderness and to monasticism (founded by the Cappadocians) to find solitude, to contemplate, to live a more ascetic lifestyle before various circumstances brought each of them back to civilization to defend the people of the ‘little tradition’– the community, the poor, the oppressed, the people of the land.

By the 476 CE in the fifth century CE the western half of the Roman Empire had fallen to the barbarians. The eastern half continued as the Byzantine Empire until the 1400s. The established infrastructure in the west disintegrated but Christianity survived via the Roman Catholic Church. Christianity was soon to face another threat– the rise of Islam in the 600s CE. Throughout history, and particularly in the Axial Age, the Jewish tradition, the early Christian tradition, and the later monastic traditions have faced a struggle between living in civilization and living a more ascetic lifestyle outside of civilization. Often those in the wilderness come back to civilization, are assimilated and changed, they become part of the oppressive system, and the cycle begins again.