Jonathan Kirsch. God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism. Viking Compass, 2004. See here to buy the book.
I enjoyed Jonathan Kirsch’s History of the End of the World (see my review here) because I found it to be informative and intriguing, and I appreciated Kirsch’s interaction with scholarly sources about the Book of Revelation. I figured that I might enjoy his God Against the Gods, as well. I wanted to learn more about paganism, ideas about the origins of monotheism, and Akhenaton’s monotheistic crusade in Egypt. I read some of the Amazon reviews of God Against the Gods and saw that the book also discussed Constantine and Julian, and I was not as interested in those topics, since I read a biography of Constantine not long ago (see my review here). I still decided to read God Against the Gods because I thought I might learn something; plus, Kirsch is a compelling storyteller!
On the one hand, I was very disappointed by the book’s treatment of Akhenaton and Josiah. I do not feel that I have a greater understanding after reading the book of why these figures decided to pursue and to promote monotheism. Some of that may be due to the paucity of primary sources, particularly about Akhenaton, but I do feel a need to read more about him to understand him more, and to see how his monotheism interacted with his Egyptian context—-or at the very least to read ideas and speculations about these things. I also did not find in Kirsch’s book much of a description of ancient Near Eastern paganism or many ideas about how monotheism originated.
On the other hand, I was very impressed by the sections in the book about Constantine and Julian. Kirsch’s clear telling of the story of Constantine placed in context some of the things that I had read in David Potter’s biography of the man. Kirsch referred to the idea, for example, that some people in the Roman empire had an almost monotheistic adoration of the sun, and that this could have served as a cover for their belief in Christianity, and Kirsch also discussed the origins of the idea that the Roman empire should have multiple rulers. Kirsch also portrays Julian as one who embraced paganism because of his disillusionment with the Christians he knew, such as Constantius II, who murdered Julian’s father; Julian’s belief that such people should not receive cheap grace, which Julian thought that Christianity offered, but that paganism did not; and the comfort that Julian received from pagan philosophy during the difficult years of his life. There may have been additional factors behind Julian’s adherence to paganism, but Kirsch’s telling of the story of Julian really humanized the man.
Overall, I did not find what I was looking for in the book, and I actually enjoyed the sections that I was not expecting to enjoy. Another impressive section of the book was Kirsch’s discussion of paganism, and his attempts to address Jewish and Christian charges that pagans engaged in human sacrifice and had orgies. Kirsch argues that human sacrifice came to an end in paganism a couple of centuries before the common era, that the Romans themselves could be rather prudish when it came to sex, that there were pagan cults that prized virginity, and that there are other ways to account for some of the sources that associate prostitution with worship (i.e., some pagans may have associated with prostitutes after worship, but those prostitutes were not necessarily associated with the cult). Kirsch is not always nuanced in his discussion of paganism, as when he says that pagan worshipers sought a good afterlife, or that pagans had an ethical consideration for the poor, like the Christians did. Still, Kirsch’s section about paganism was informative.
One may think in reading this book that Kirsch believes that polytheism was good and that monotheism was bad, and that he wishes that polytheism had won out. Kirsch does give that impression, for he portrays monotheism as historically intolerant and polytheism as tolerant, overall, of different religions and ways to worship. Kirsch also seems to defend polytheism against charges of intolerance: he says that a number of stories about Christian martyrdom are exaggerated, and that there were cases in which Roman authorities actually begged Christians to offer incense to the gods because the Roman authorities did not want the Christians to be killed. Still, Kirsch cannot escape the fact that even polytheism has been intolerant, as he points to Antiochus Epiphanes, Diocletian, and even Julian, on occasion. (Julian was not intolerant, according to Kirsch, but he did turn a blind eye when pagans persecuted Christians.) In the end, Kirsch acknowledges the contributions of monotheism and polytheism, hopes that they can learn from each other, and expresses a wish that they had reached an armistice, rather than for monotheism to have triumphed. Kirsch refers to Constantine and Julian as people who supported tolerance for different religions.
After reading this book, I am encouraged to read Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which Kirsch quotes and references, and I may do that someday. I realize that the book is dated, that some of its conclusions have been questioned (i.e., that Rome fell due to moral reasons), and that its biases (i.e., its arguably Enlightenment, anti-Christian bias) have been noted. Still, I would like to read it sometime.