Despite its reputation for religious intolerance, the Middle East has long sheltered many distinctive and strange faiths: one regards the Greek prophets as incarnations of God, another reveres Lucifer in the form of a peacock, and yet another believes that their followers are reincarnated beings who have existed in various forms for thousands of years. These religions represent the last vestiges of the magnificent civilizations in ancient history: Persia, Babylon, Egypt in the time of the Pharaohs. Their followers have learned how to survive foreign attacks and the perils of assimilation. But today, with the Middle East in turmoil, they face greater challenges than ever before.
In Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, former diplomat Gerard Russell ventures to the distant, nearly impassable regions where these mysterious religions still cling to survival. He lives alongside the Mandaeans and Ezidis of Iraq, the Zoroastrians of Iran, the Copts of Egypt, and others. He learns their histories, participates in their rituals, and comes to understand the threats to their communities. As more and more of their youth flee to the West in search of safety and prosperity, these religions face the dire possibility of extinction.I haven’t read the book; though it’s on my list. I did watch a speech on the book given by the author which I have embedded.
One of the things that struck me listening to this lectures is Russell’s focus on Pythagoras as a figure who connects the different ancient religions. It struck me because this wasn’t the first time I encountered such notion. I am well familiar with John Adams’ letter to Thomas Jefferson, dated December 25, 1813, where he discusses Pythagoras learning about the Trinity from the Hindus in India and bringing such doctrine into Ancient Greece, hence Western Civilization.
The context of this letter was John Adams criticizing Joseph Priestley, a man for whom Adams had great respect in a love/hate sort of way, to Thomas Jefferson, another Priestley disciple. Adams invoked Priestley’s book “Doctrines of Heathen Philosophers, compared with those of Revelation.” (1804)
Priestley was a freethinking Socinian Unitarian “Christian.” He believed Jesus Messiah, and that God spoke to man through revelation; but he also thought 1. Original Sin, 2. Trinity, 3. Incarnation, 4. Atonement, and 5. Plenary Inspiration of the Bible were “Corruptions of Christianity.” Socinians, if we don’t know, believe Jesus was 100% man, not at all divine in His nature, but on a divine mission. Priestley thought himself a “unitarian” and a “Christian,” not a “Deist.” But his creed wasn’t that different from those of the “Christian-Deists” who preceded him.
Indeed, this controversy had been covered before Adams wrote his aforementioned letter, and Priestley, his book. (Though Priestley may have explored these issues in earlier writings.) The very orthodox Christian American Founder Elias Boudinat in his 1801 book “The Age of Revelation” (written to counter Thomas Paine’s Deistic “The Age of Reason“) cited a 1794 book by Thomas Maurice. As quoted:
One of the most prominent features in the Indian theology, is the doctrine of a Trinity, which it plainly inculcates; a subject by no means to be passed over in silence; but at the same time connected with the abstrusest speculations of ancient philosophy. It has been repeatedly observed, that the mythologic personages, Brahma, Veeshnu, and Seeva, constitute the grand Hindoo triad of Deity. – That, nearly all the Pagan nations of antiquity, in their various theological systems, acknowledged a kind of Trinity in the Divine Nature, has been the occasion of much needless alarm and unfounded apprehension, especially to those professors of Christianity, whose religious principles rest upon so slender a basis, that they waver with every wind of doctrine. The very circumstances which has given rise to these apprehensions, the universal prevalence of this doctrine in the Gentile kingdoms, is, in my opinion, so far from invalidating the Divine authenticity of it, that it appears to be an irrefragable argument in its favour. It ought to confirm the piety of the wavering Christian, and build up the tottering fabric of his faith.
The doctrine itself bears such striking internal marks of a Divine original, and is so very unlikely to have been the invention of mere human reason, that there is no way of accounting for the general adoption of so singular a belief by most ancient nations, than by supposing what I have, in pretty strong terms, intimated at the commencement of this chapter, to be the genuine fact, that the doctrine was neither the invention of Pythagoras, nor Plato, nor any other philosopher in the ancient world, but a sublime mysterious truth, one of those stupendous arcana of the invisible world, which through the condescending goodness of Divine Providence, was revealed to the ancient patriarchs of the faithful line of Shem, by them propagated to their Hebrew posterity; and through that posterity, during their various migrations and dispersions over the east, diffused through the Gentile nations, among whom they sojourned. I must again take permission to assert it as my solemn belief – a belief founded upon long and elaborate investigation of this important subject, that the Indian, as well as all other triads of Deity, so universally adored throughout the whole Asiatic world, and under every denomination, whether they consist of persons, principles, or attributes deified, are only corruptions of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.Maurice’s book was written in part to rebut the “critical religious studies” of Deists like Voltaire (whom he names) that tried to explain away the doctrine of the Trinity. Boudinat following Maurice attempts to defend the doctrine as a divine Truth traceable to the Hebrews that then filtered its way to the Eastern regions and got corrupted by those religions. Adams followed Priestley and the Deists attempting to trace the “false” doctrine of the Trinity to Plato and perhaps before. Before Plato was Pythagoras, who encountered the Hindu Trinity.
In his book, Russell admits that Pythagoras and his followers viewed the concept of Trinity as something divinely true.