The One Book religions

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

A friend wrote to ask me how I thought circumstances effected religious belief. I wrote this response.


A fascinating fact is how much human religion was shaped by the lack of the printing press. Judaism, Islam, Christianity. These religions all arose after writing had been invented, but before the printing press. These are all One Book religions — the whole religion exists in a single book. In hindsight, it’s incredible how important this was. Before the printing press, there are 3,000 years when the “one book” religions simply overran all pagan beliefs.

I assume this played out in a few ways. Imagine a mother in a pagan tribe, without writing, and she’s trying to tell her children a story, which she herself was told by her mother. She is struggling to remember the details. It’s all a little hazy. She heard the story 10 years ago. She lacks confidence. But she wants her children to know the lore of the tribe.

Then along comes some preacher, with different stories but who, with great confidence, says “I know the truth, because it is in this book”. Because of the book, the preacher is able to speak words that are exactly the same words that other preachers of that religion used 50 years ago, and are exactly the same words that preachers in other villages are using at the same moment, all over the Empire. It’s like a magic trick. How can oral traditions compete against such an advanced technology?

The most interesting example was Hinduism, which was a scattered, disorganized pagan religion that very nearly went extinct. Amartya Sen points out that for a 1,000 years after the introduction of Buddhism, the people of China referred to India as “The Buddhist Kingdom”. Buddhism had a book and Hinduism didn’t, so Hinduism was nearly wiped out, like all other pagan faiths. But then Vyasa had the brilliant idea to write down the epic of Mahabharata, and thus Hinduism was saved, becoming the only really pagan faith to survive to the modern age.

Hinduism is the exception that proves the rule — even an incredibly literate, well-educated, ancient civilization like India almost lost its original religion, because initially no one wrote down the main traditions. We can imagine how impossible it was for poor starving wandering tribes for write down their traditions; and therefore how vulnerable they were when a preacher from one of the One Book religions showed up and said “I have the Truth, it is in this book.”

Even the Jews started off a pagan poor wandering tribe. One of the tribes that eventually became the Jews lived near Mount Sinai. Another tribe lived in southern Saudi Arabia. They initially worshipped a Goddess named Ashera.

My mom (who is constantly doing research on this subject) recently sent me this in an email:

“Regardless of when the rabbis stopped doing something, archaeology has already told us that ordinary Hebrews continued to keep statuettes of ASHERA (also called ASTARTE; sometimes conflated with ISHTAR) on their household altars for several centuries after the official version (first TEMPLE) of the religion had coalesced around monotheism. There are hints in the archaeological evidence that the religion of the Jewish nations of Judea (southern) and Israel (northern) MORE CLOSELY FOLLOWED THE PRACTICES OF THEIR PAGAN NEIGHBORS than any contemporary self-identified Jew would feel comfortable to admit.”

Judaism, as we know it today, did not exist till the Babylonian Captivity. When all the Jewish priests and noblemen were taken as prisoners and forced to sit around all day, with nothing to do, in the most civilized and literate city in the entire world, it finally occurred to them that they should write down their myths. Ironically, it is the Captivity that saved Judaism, and turned it into a One Book religion.

We have so many books now, and we have the Internet, I think it is difficult for us to remember how very, very difficult it used to be to pass information from one generation to another. It was an epic feat to write a book and get people to agree to make copies, by hand, so that the next generation could learn the stories. Writing the book was only a small part of the process, the toughest task was getting people to make copies.

When we look back we can see that between 1,000 BC and 500 BC there is a radical reduction in the number of religions in the world. Once the Phonecians (at their peak from 1200 to 800 BC) invented the concept of a phonetic alphabet, all the other people’s of the Mediterranean and Middle East adopted the same idea, and once every body had an alphabet, they started writing down their myths. So the Illiad, the Odessy, the Bible, and the Epic of Gilgamesh all get written at nearly the same time, because the Greeks, Jews and Sumerians were all inspired by each other. Though actually, the Jews were too poor and migrant to write anything until they were taken captive and transported to what was, at that time, the biggest, wealthiest and most literate city in the world.

Thousands of religions disappeared, as they were only the local legends of small tribes, and the small tribes tended to absorb the legends from neighbors who had written down their stories.

As to your main question:

> * Traditional Archetypes: are they applicable to people
> that live more or less untouched by empire building?

I think people’s experiences have universal elements, though the changing economy changes how we interpret them. For universal experiences, consider Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-daro. I’ve attached the image. Here is a girl who looks like she’s just been dancing, or will dance, with all sorts of bracelets on her arm. She looks contemporary, like a woman who I might see dancing in Washington Square Park on a hot summer day, though she is in fact one of the oldest statues in existence, at least 5,000 years old, possibly 6,000 years old. Clearly, some human experiences (and sources of joy) have not changed much in a long time. On the other hand, the economy (in the broadest sense) shapes our experiences of life. Our universal experiences feel very different, depending on whether you live in a migrant tribe or a big city. If you look at the cave paintings at Lascaux, they are mostly about hunting, which clearly took up a lot of the time and mental energy of the folks who lived there. I’m sure there religion was full of Archetypes which were inspired by hunting.