As we enter on the artificially created moment of the new Millennium set by the Christian calendar, an observer skeptical of the eschatological visions of doomsday apocalyptics might yet consider that mankind is passing through a crisis in human history as a whole, the end of a long beginning since the passing of the last Ice Age. Globalization and economic interpenetration, the onrush of technology, political cyclone, ecological and demographic alarm, coexist with futurist expectation, and the hopes of temporal salvation rendered over to providential certainties. Ideas of progress and decline seem finally to blend in the antique hope of ‘end-time’ redemption, to pass as the ultimate ‘quick fix’ uttered in slogans. Some see the end of the ‘modern age’, and in a postmodernist mood, survey twentieth century as the close of an era. At least, the expectation of millennial completion seems a desperate impatience in a vault of centuries and a progression of epochs barely underway, barely able to begin. The nature of futurist beliefs, themselves the source of endless confusion, generate historical misperception in the traffic between archetypal ‘crisis’ and the console red-warning lights of real issues.
It is interesting that the roots of millennial conceptions in their current form emerged from the ideas of Zarathustra, in the second Millennium BC, passed through the vehicle of the Persian Empire into the parallel world of emerging Judaism during the period of the Exile and thence into Christianity and Islam. By this reckoning our crisis is quite ancient indeed, as recycled eschatology. It is difficult to reconstruct the exact relationship of Zoroastrianism and the Hebraic monotheism, although the Book of Daniel shows the clear footprints leading back to the era of the Persian Empire in the time of Cyrus the Great.i
Our sense of universal history springs from the Old Testament epic. But this is a complex hybrid of multiple origins. The blend of indigenous Judaic monotheism, as it emerged from its Canaanite, thence Egyptian and Mesopotamian traditions, along with the themes of Iranian dualism and eschatological messianism during the period of the Exile and after, resurfacing strongly during the Qumranic period near the birth of Christianity, is one of the most confusing overlays of the period of cultural advance and integration that occurred with a center of gravity ca. -600, thence to generate the pillars of a great constellation of traditions. This complex parallel emergence and interactive blending constitutes one of the central mysteries of the western religious tradition.
That the record of the period of Exile given in the Old Testament should have preserved the forgotten connection of eschatological ideas with the parallel Zoroastrianism in the world of the Persian Empire is a piece of a greater puzzle. It is the period ca. -600, plus and minus, that is in fact our subject, for it is this era that is the rough center of gravity of a great transformation, known as the Axial Age.
It is the era of the birth of the great religions in concert at the fountainhead of the traditions of classical antiquity. The process transcends the phenomenon of religion and we see that the synchronous effect applies as well to the polytheistic Greece in the period of the Ionian Enlightenment. The seeds of modern secular culture are there sown at the same time, there is no clear differentiation. The Old Testament conceals a riddle, but cannot do justice to its own discovery of the Axial Age. Its perspective is too localized.
The Birth of Universal History The Biblical tradition gives testimony to the birth of ideas of universal, or progressive history, against the backdrop of cyclical myths, and this was influenced by Zoroastrianism. The irony that this linear, eschatological view of history should emerge in the mysterious moment of the so-called Axial Age, whose cyclical interpretation we will discover, and which will drive us to see their synthesis, the cyclical driving the linear, in the eonic effect.ii
The myths of the Old Testament require a new understanding in the wake of the findings of Biblical Criticism, and the phenomenon of the Axial Age. We need to recast our understanding of the remarkable significance and context of the Old Testament. It is pointing indirectly to a great historical transition, in the evolution of religion itself toward a new form of monotheism. But that transformation is larger than the phenomenon of religion.
Even secular philosophy finds itself unable to do justice to this seminal epic at the dawn of middle antiquity. It is important to consider how little accurate information we have for this period. By comparison the histories of the Greek period are rich in data. We could not reliably speak of the historical existence of Abraham, Moses, the Exodus, or any of the other details of a history rendered into an ideological collation in the generation before the Exile.
The Bible Unearthed A renewed sense of the extraordinary significance of the Old Testament leaves us with a question, What is the Bible recording? Theistic historicism or an Axial transformation? The natural division into three sections, the Torah, the Prophets, and the post-exilic writings of the period Ezra and Nehemiah, gives the clue: the prophetic period straddles the Axial interval and this, as we will see, is period of transition to a new era, leading to its conclusion at a point of ‘divide’, ca. -600, in its enigmatic synchrony with Greek, Indian, Chinese, and other parallels. We can decipher this transition by comparison with its isomorphic instances, as in the emergence of Classical Greece from the Greek Archaic. The Bible comes into existence and begins to crystallize in the generation of the Great Reformation of Josiah at the conclusion of its Axial transition.iii
Seen rightly, the Old Testament’s core account, the rough interval from -900 to the Exile, unwittingly records an incident in the Axial Age. The puzzle of continuity and discontinuity perplexed the redactors of the Judaic corpus who attempted to seek the sources of their suddenly appearing tradition in earlier figures. Yet the sagas of Abraham and Moses, if historical, clearly precede the crucial phase. One irony of our enquiry will be to inherit the true beauty of the Old Testament in a secular interpretation.iv
This period seems the source, as an age of ‘revelation’, of our sense of the sacred. Yet we can now see that the Zoroastrian, Abrahamic, and other sources precede this period, whose relative transformation of outstanding cultural streams seems to generate the illusion of an absolute or transcendental source. This is a challenge to our idea of an age of Revelation. Further, Christianity and Islam arise much later, but seem to look backward to this period, whose actual core shows something quite different, the history of a Canaanite culture zone, ‘Israel/Judah’, whose religious traditions suddenly transform into a monotheistic vehicle, as it sows the seeds of the religions to come. An almost identical phenomenon, at this high level of abstraction, is visible in India, and in a comparable time frame. In fact this entire period was extraordinary in its generation, and all at once, of new cultural traditions. The complexity of this picture requires a new type of historical model.
The Evolution of Religion? The Old Testament records a paradox: monotheism seems to begin with an ‘Abraham’, yet also seems to come into existence in the Axial interval. This problem of relative transformation is a prime candidate for analysis using our eonic model. The ‘evolution’ of religion in the emergence of civilization is a complex overlay of two processes, macro and micro. The micro aspect develops at all times, while the macro is expressed in a larger discontinuous series. The intersection of the two is what leads to the remarkable florescence we see in the Israelite monotheism that surges outward, like an amplified signal, in the wake of the Axial interval. One and the same effect, and one and the same timing, is visible in the emergence of the parallel Axial Buddhism in India.
With the increase of modern historical knowledge this strange phenomenon of synchronous parallelism has become an enigma replacing a myth, in the process casting the Occidental myths of revelation in a most ironic light. This constellation of creative individuals generates a new age of history, and leads us into causal perplexity before such a complex temporal correlation over independent regions of so many effects. It is a phenomenon of Gaian proportions, yet we see only a series of outcomes, never the dynamic behind them. There is nothing simple about it, for while it is true that the Old Testament demonstrates the appearance of Biblical prophets in this period, the effect has nothing as such to do with prophets. Prophets existed before, but none quite like this unique series in their anticipations of a new world to come.
From its archetypal roots, the eschatological idea forever resurfaces, as evidenced in the versions of early modernism, as they influenced, for example, the German and English Civil Wars, Hegel, and Marx. The eschatological nexus moves between its twin realizations, the slow, and the fast, the one conservative dangling the carrot of hope, the other radical, pedal to the floor acceleration and social tumult. The ‘end times’ are the grounds for the last revolution, or else the ‘end of history’ is the rationale for the end of revolutions. It is no accident that much contemporary social criticism attempted to expose the fast version embedded in leftist communism, looking the other way at the slow version granted the weight of religious tradition.
The eschatological idea echoes throughout history, reaching the modern world in its inverted secular forms, such as the Hegelian ‘end of history’ showing the connection between state and transcendence in direct fashion. This thinking echoes the question posed by the philosopher Kant in his classic essay Idea for a Universal History. Our secular Zarathustras live in the acceleration of history, the exponential curve as myth. Francis Fukuyama finds, in The End of History and the Last Man, that we have reached a political final state, the end of world-historical political evolution in the form of the liberal state. If this is true, it should better be called the Beginning of History, the real New Age, if its creature could reach future history as a New Man. But the point is rather that in the perception of Hegel the evolution of freedom visible in the realizations of modern democracy tokens a New Axial transformation of the worlds inherited from antiquity. Finally, in the vault of time, the scale of the historical passes to the moment of Earth time and the evolution of life, thence to embrace the Big Bang and even, in new crypto-Zoroastrian theories of physics, a final relativistic Omega Point of converging world-lines at the “end of time”.v