The Influence of Babylonian Religion on Judaism

by Esteban

“But, it will be asked, what interest can the religions of Babylonia and Assyria have for us, much more an inquiry into their nature and origin? They have long since perished, like the people who professed them, and have left no apparent traces of their influence upon the nations about whom we know and care most.

The Greeks and Romans concerned themselves so little with these Eastern barbarians as neither to read nor to preserve the only Greek history of Chaldaea (ed. note: referring to Berossus) which was written by a native and professed to be derived from native accounts; we owe the fragments we have of it to the apologetic zeal of Christian controversialists.

Still less would it appear that these old people of Babylonia and Assyria can have had any influence upon the world of to-day, or have served to mould the ideas and the society of modern Europe. Such questions may be asked, and until lately it would have been hard to answer them.

And yet a moment’s consideration might have shown that there was one nation at all events which has exercised, and still exercises, a considerable intluence upon our own thought and life, and which had been brought into close contact with the religion and culture of Babylonia at a critical epoch in its history.

The influence of Jewish religion upon Christianity, and consequently upon the races that have been moulded by Christianity, has been lasting and profound. Now Jewish religion was intimately bound up with Jewish history, more intimately perhaps than has been the case with any other great religion of the world.

It took its colouring from the events that marked the political life of the Hebrew people; it developed in unison with their struggles and successes, their trials and disappointments. Its great devotional utterance, the Book of Psalms, is national, not individual; the individual in it has merged his own aspirations and sufferings into those of the whole community.

The course of Jewish prophecy is equally stamped with the impress of the national fortunes. It grows clearer and more catholic as the intercourse of the Jewish people with those around them becomes wider; and the lesson is taught at last that the God of the Jews is the God also of the whole world.

Now the chosen instruments for enforcing this lesson, as we are expressly told, were the Assyrian and the Babylonian. The Assyrian was the rod of God’s anger, while the Babylonish exile was the bitter punishment meted out to Judah for its sins.

The captives who returned again to their own land came back with changed hearts and purified minds; from henceforward Jerusalem was to be the unrivalled dwelling-place of “the righteous nation which keepeth the truth.”

Apart, therefore, from any influence which the old religious beliefs of Babylonia may have had upon the Greeks, and which, as we shall see, was not so wholly wanting as was formerly imagined, their contact with the religious conceptions of the Jewish exiles must, to say the least, have produced an effect which it is well worth our while to study.

Hitherto, the traditional view has been that this effect exhibited itself wholly on the antagonistic side; the Jews carried nothing away from the land of their captivity except an intense hatred of idolatry, more especially Babylonian, as well as of the beliefs and practices associated therewith.

Now and then, it is true, some bold spirit, like Bishop Warburton, may have ventured to propound the paradox that the doctrine of the resurrection was first learnt by the Jews in Babylonia, but it was treated generally as a paradox, and of late years, if admitted at all, was considered a proof of the influence not of the Babylonians but of their Persian conquerors.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 38-40.