Roots of Religion

Trace the origins of some of the worlds largest religions and sacred texts, examining what we know about how they came to be, and how they spread – and importantly explore what they are not, with the application of today’s modern secular definition of religion leading to misunderstandings and misnomers around so many of these movements.

Roots of Religion Episodes

Roots of Religion: India - pt. 2 - Foundations of Hinduism

What do Hindus believe? What rituals, traditions, and ethical principles does one follow as a Hindu? What does Hinduism say about the soul and spiritual enlightenment? We trace the development in ancient and classical India of the multi-layered and comprehensive philosophy of life that we today call Hinduism, from the ancient rites of the Vedas, through the dramatic epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, to the rise of the ecstatic musical and mystical worship of bhakti. Image: sculpture of Krishna defeating a horse demon, Gupta period.

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Full Episode Details
Also see India -- pt. 1: Creating Civilization in South Asia

Roots of Religion: The early church, pt. 2 - Houses Divided

How did the early church hammer out a shared set of practices and teachings out of the welter of confusion and bitter contestation among Montanists, Docetists, Donatists, Paulines, Gnostics, and Ebionites? Why did it take 300 years just for the church to settle on the "creed" that most of us now understand as the core of the faith? image: earliest known manuscript of the Didachesuggested reading: E. Glenn Hinson, "The Early Church"

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Full Episode DetailsAlso see all 8 episodes On the History of Christianity

Roots of Religion: The Early Church, pt. 1 - Christianity on the Road

How did a small movement of Jewish fanatics, devastated by the ignominious demise of their leader, rise to become the official state religion of the Roman empire, Armenia, Georgia, and Ethiopia? We trace the dramatic rise of the new faith through three centuries of preaching, prophesy, and persecution. Image: fresco of a woman at the 3rd-century house-church of Dura-Europos.

Suggested reading: E. Glenn Hinson, "The Early Church"

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Full Episode DetailsAlso see all 8 episodes On the History of Christianity

Roots of Religion: Islam 1 - Muhammad, the first Caliphate, and the core teachings

We trace the shocking and rapid rise of Islam in the 600s, as a confederation of desert towns and tribes unite around Muhammad and his prophesies from the Abrahamic god, then swiftly launch a stunning campaign of conquests against the major empires of the age. We consider the roots of the basic teachings and practices of the new religion, including the Qur'an, the hadiths, the Five Pillars, jihad, shariah, the divide between Sunni and Shiah, and Islamic laws regarding the status of women and of Jews and Christians or "people of the Book."

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Full Episode Details
Also see Becoming Modern: Islam 2 - From the "Golden Age" to the Fundamentalist Reaction

Roots of Religion: The Historical Jesus

We join in the ongoing quest for the historical Jesus -- the struggle to unearth and understand who Jesus really was, what he said and did, and how he inspired a movement. We trace the basic bare-bones facts that can be deduced from early Christian writings and brief references in other texts, including Jesus' baptism and crucifixion. We throw out the flimsy theories of hacks like Reza Aslan and Bill O'Reilly, as well as the junk theory that no Jesus existed at all, and instead examine the new archeological evidence that helps to account for some of the strangest passages in the Gospels.

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Full Episode DetailsAlso see all 8 episodes On the History of Christianity

Roots of Religion: Who Wrote the Bible? - New Testament

We consider the long ideological struggles in the early church that led to the gradual collection of a canon of Christian writings that we now call the New Testament. We trace when, where, and why the various gospels and letters in the New Testament were written (hint: Matthew was not the first, not even close) and how they present different theological views. All in all, though, the New Testament writings were created to respond to the dilemma that as the years dragged on and Jesus' disciples died off, the Second Coming that early Christians anticipated simply wasn't happening.

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Full Episode DetailsAlso see all 8 episodes On the History of Christianity

Roots of Religion: Who Wrote the Bible? - Hebrew Scriptures

We dissect the origins of the Hebrew Bible (also called the Old Testament by Christians), excavating the deepest layers of the collection of holy books, including the very ancient songs and prayers that were likely passed on orally for centuries before being written down, the scholarly theories of the lost documents that were stitched together to form Genesis and Exodus, and the differing points of view of the various prophets, scribes, and propagandists whose books made their way into the Hebrew canon...

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Full Episode Details

Also see all 7 episodes On Judaism and Jewish History
Related content: 8 episodes On the History of Christianity
Related content: Muhammad, the first Caliphate, and the core teachings

Roots of Religion: Judaism - What Is It and Where Did It Come From?

We consider how best to understand the origins of the laws and customs of the Jewish people, or what we call "Judaism." We begin by dispelling the notion that Judaism (or any other belief system apart from Christianity) can properly be called a "religion" -- a category that derives originally from Christian practice and does not make sense anywhere else. We further examine the roots of the idea of "Judaism" as a concept for the Jewish way of life, concluding with a careful analysis of the meaning of the ancient Greek word "ioudaismos," which originates in the Book of Maccabees. Finally, we trace the best possible explanation for the origins of the Jewish people in the Bronze-Age Near East, using archaeological evidence including an ancient Egyptian monument and the vandalized ruins of Canaanite temples. Ultimately, we should be able to understand Judaism and its God as the creations of a particular Middle Eastern people not entirely unlike their ancient neighbors. Special thanks to Daniel Boyarin for his help and inspiration.

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Full Episode Details

Also see all 7 episodes On Judaism and Jewish History

Roots of Religion: India - pt. 2 - Foundations of Hinduism

What do Hindus believe? What rituals, traditions, and ethical principles does one follow as a Hindu? What does Hinduism say about the soul and spiritual enlightenment? We trace the development in ancient and classical India of the multi-layered and comprehensive philosophy of life that we today call Hinduism, from the ancient rites of the Vedas, through the dramatic epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, to the rise of the ecstatic musical and mystical worship of bhakti. Image: sculpture of Krishna defeating a horse demon, Gupta period.

Listen on SoundCloudAlso see India -- pt. 1: Creating Civilization in South Asia

Roots of Religion: The early church, pt. 2 - Houses Divided

How did the early church hammer out a shared set of practices and teachings out of the welter of confusion and bitter contestation among Montanists, Docetists, Donatists, Paulines, Gnostics, and Ebionites? Why did it take 300 years just for the church to settle on the "creed" that most of us now understand as the core of the faith? image: earliest known manuscript of the Didachesuggested reading: E. Glenn Hinson, "The Early Church"

Listen on SoundCloudAlso see all 8 episodes On the History of Christianity

Roots of Religion: The Early Church, pt. 1 - Christianity on the Road

How did a small movement of Jewish fanatics, devastated by the ignominious demise of their leader, rise to become the official state religion of the Roman empire, Armenia, Georgia, and Ethiopia? We trace the dramatic rise of the new faith through three centuries of preaching, prophesy, and persecution. Image: fresco of a woman at the 3rd-century house-church of Dura-Europos.

Suggested reading: E. Glenn Hinson, "The Early Church"

Listen on SoundCloudAlso see all 8 episodes On the History of Christianity

Roots of Religion: Islam 1 - Muhammad, the first Caliphate, and the core teachings

We trace the shocking and rapid rise of Islam in the 600s, as a confederation of desert towns and tribes unite around Muhammad and his prophesies from the Abrahamic god, then swiftly launch a stunning campaign of conquests against the major empires of the age. We consider the roots of the basic teachings and practices of the new religion, including the Qur'an, the hadiths, the Five Pillars, jihad, shariah, the divide between Sunni and Shiah, and Islamic laws regarding the status of women and of Jews and Christians or "people of the Book."

Listen on SoundCloudAlso see Becoming Modern: Islam 2 - From the "Golden Age" to the Fundamentalist Reaction

Roots of Religion: The Historical Jesus

We join in the ongoing quest for the historical Jesus -- the struggle to unearth and understand who Jesus really was, what he said and did, and how he inspired a movement. We trace the basic bare-bones facts that can be deduced from early Christian writings and brief references in other texts, including Jesus' baptism and crucifixion. We throw out the flimsy theories of hacks like Reza Aslan and Bill O'Reilly, as well as the junk theory that no Jesus existed at all, and instead examine the new archeological evidence that helps to account for some of the strangest passages in the Gospels.

Listen on SoundCloudAlso see all 8 episodes On the History of Christianity

Roots of Religion: Who Wrote the Bible? - New Testament

We consider the long ideological struggles in the early church that led to the gradual collection of a canon of Christian writings that we now call the New Testament. We trace when, where, and why the various gospels and letters in the New Testament were written (hint: Matthew was not the first, not even close) and how they present different theological views. All in all, though, the New Testament writings were created to respond to the dilemma that as the years dragged on and Jesus' disciples died off, the Second Coming that early Christians anticipated simply wasn't happening.

Listen on SoundCloudAlso see all 8 episodes On the History of Christianity

Roots of Religion: Who Wrote the Bible? - Hebrew Scriptures

We dissect the origins of the Hebrew Bible (also called the Old Testament by Christians), excavating the deepest layers of the collection of holy books, including the very ancient songs and prayers that were likely passed on orally for centuries before being written down, the scholarly theories of the lost documents that were stitched together to form Genesis and Exodus, and the differing points of view of the various prophets, scribes, and propagandists whose books made their way into the Hebrew canon...

Listen on SoundCloud

Also see all 7 episodes On Judaism and Jewish History
Related content: 8 episodes On the History of Christianity
Related content: Muhammad, the first Caliphate, and the core teachings

Roots of Religion: Judaism - What Is It and Where Did It Come From?

We consider how best to understand the origins of the laws and customs of the Jewish people, or what we call "Judaism." We begin by dispelling the notion that Judaism (or any other belief system apart from Christianity) can properly be called a "religion" -- a category that derives originally from Christian practice and does not make sense anywhere else. We further examine the roots of the idea of "Judaism" as a concept for the Jewish way of life, concluding with a careful analysis of the meaning of the ancient Greek word "ioudaismos," which originates in the Book of Maccabees. Finally, we trace the best possible explanation for the origins of the Jewish people in the Bronze-Age Near East, using archaeological evidence including an ancient Egyptian monument and the vandalized ruins of Canaanite temples. Ultimately, we should be able to understand Judaism and its God as the creations of a particular Middle Eastern people not entirely unlike their ancient neighbors. Special thanks to Daniel Boyarin for his help and inspiration.

Listen on SoundCloud

Also see all 7 episodes On Judaism and Jewish History

Roots of Religion: India - pt. 2 - Foundations of Hinduism

What do Hindus believe? What rituals, traditions, and ethical principles does one follow as a Hindu? What does Hinduism say about the soul and spiritual enlightenment? We trace the development in ancient and classical India of the multi-layered and comprehensive philosophy of life that we today call Hinduism, from the ancient rites of the Vedas, through the dramatic epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, to the rise of the ecstatic musical and mystical worship of bhakti. Image: sculpture of Krishna defeating a horse demon, Gupta period.

Listen on YouTubeAlso see India -- pt. 1: Creating Civilization in South Asia

Roots of Religion: The early church, pt. 2 - Houses Divided

How did the early church hammer out a shared set of practices and teachings out of the welter of confusion and bitter contestation among Montanists, Docetists, Donatists, Paulines, Gnostics, and Ebionites? Why did it take 300 years just for the church to settle on the "creed" that most of us now understand as the core of the faith? image: earliest known manuscript of the Didachesuggested reading: E. Glenn Hinson, "The Early Church"

Listen on YouTubeAlso see all 8 episodes On the History of Christianity

Roots of Religion: The Early Church, pt. 1 - Christianity on the Road

How did a small movement of Jewish fanatics, devastated by the ignominious demise of their leader, rise to become the official state religion of the Roman empire, Armenia, Georgia, and Ethiopia? We trace the dramatic rise of the new faith through three centuries of preaching, prophesy, and persecution. Image: fresco of a woman at the 3rd-century house-church of Dura-Europos.

Suggested reading: E. Glenn Hinson, "The Early Church"

Listen on YouTubeAlso see all 8 episodes On the History of Christianity

Roots of Religion: Islam 1 - Muhammad, the first Caliphate, and the core teachings

We trace the shocking and rapid rise of Islam in the 600s, as a confederation of desert towns and tribes unite around Muhammad and his prophesies from the Abrahamic god, then swiftly launch a stunning campaign of conquests against the major empires of the age. We consider the roots of the basic teachings and practices of the new religion, including the Qur'an, the hadiths, the Five Pillars, jihad, shariah, the divide between Sunni and Shiah, and Islamic laws regarding the status of women and of Jews and Christians or "people of the Book."

Listen on YouTubeAlso see Becoming Modern: Islam 2 - From the "Golden Age" to the Fundamentalist Reaction

Roots of Religion: The Historical Jesus

We join in the ongoing quest for the historical Jesus -- the struggle to unearth and understand who Jesus really was, what he said and did, and how he inspired a movement. We trace the basic bare-bones facts that can be deduced from early Christian writings and brief references in other texts, including Jesus' baptism and crucifixion. We throw out the flimsy theories of hacks like Reza Aslan and Bill O'Reilly, as well as the junk theory that no Jesus existed at all, and instead examine the new archeological evidence that helps to account for some of the strangest passages in the Gospels.

Listen on YouTubeAlso see all 8 episodes On the History of Christianity

Roots of Religion: Who Wrote the Bible? - New Testament

We consider the long ideological struggles in the early church that led to the gradual collection of a canon of Christian writings that we now call the New Testament. We trace when, where, and why the various gospels and letters in the New Testament were written (hint: Matthew was not the first, not even close) and how they present different theological views. All in all, though, the New Testament writings were created to respond to the dilemma that as the years dragged on and Jesus' disciples died off, the Second Coming that early Christians anticipated simply wasn't happening.

Listen on YouTubeAlso see all 8 episodes On the History of Christianity

Roots of Religion: Who Wrote the Bible? - Hebrew Scriptures

We dissect the origins of the Hebrew Bible (also called the Old Testament by Christians), excavating the deepest layers of the collection of holy books, including the very ancient songs and prayers that were likely passed on orally for centuries before being written down, the scholarly theories of the lost documents that were stitched together to form Genesis and Exodus, and the differing points of view of the various prophets, scribes, and propagandists whose books made their way into the Hebrew canon...

Listen on YouTube

Also see all 7 episodes On Judaism and Jewish History
Related content: 8 episodes On the History of Christianity
Related content: Muhammad, the first Caliphate, and the core teachings

Roots of Religion: Judaism - What Is It and Where Did It Come From?

We consider how best to understand the origins of the laws and customs of the Jewish people, or what we call "Judaism." We begin by dispelling the notion that Judaism (or any other belief system apart from Christianity) can properly be called a "religion" -- a category that derives originally from Christian practice and does not make sense anywhere else. We further examine the roots of the idea of "Judaism" as a concept for the Jewish way of life, concluding with a careful analysis of the meaning of the ancient Greek word "ioudaismos," which originates in the Book of Maccabees. Finally, we trace the best possible explanation for the origins of the Jewish people in the Bronze-Age Near East, using archaeological evidence including an ancient Egyptian monument and the vandalized ruins of Canaanite temples. Ultimately, we should be able to understand Judaism and its God as the creations of a particular Middle Eastern people not entirely unlike their ancient neighbors. Special thanks to Daniel Boyarin for his help and inspiration.

Listen on YouTube

Also see all 7 episodes On Judaism and Jewish History

Things You Don’t Know

Did Columbus really think that he was going to reach Asia?
What little do we actually know about Shakespeare, the person?
Why is it misleading to apply the word “religion” to Judaism and Hinduism?
Are people really becoming less religious than they used to be?
How did Tisquantum (popularly known as Squanto) already know how to speak English before the Pilgrims had ever arrived?
What did Netflix’s “The Dig” miss about the most dramatic part of the whole Sutton Hoo discovery?
What does the English Civil War of the 1640s tell us about the American Civil War, and about the present?
What can we know about enslaved Africans who were held in a specific New England house, even without written records?
Who were the Freemasons of the 1700s? How did they grow from a local Scottish fraternity to a global network?
Could all of British history have turned out differently if the winds on the English channel had shifted direction on just one day in 1066?
What did followers of the ancient and secretive branch of Christianity, Gnosticism, actually believe?
Why can no one agree on what “capitalism” actually is? And why does a lack of clear definition call into question so many other myths of the modern world?
How – and why – did universities begin in the Middle Ages, long before the scientific revolution and the “Enlightenment”?
Was there really an Exodus from Egypt like the one described in the Bible?
How did changes in the climate in the 1600s lead people to think they were living in the Apocalypse? How did this help spur the creation of institutions and forces that still shape the world today?
How did accusing people of witchcraft further several political agendas of the time?
Why did every Renaissance-era ruler in Europe have a court astrologer?
Does a single coin prove that Vikings came all the way to what’s now the United States?
Why is the dramatic 2019 fire at Paris’ Notre Dame actually a common occurrence for cathedrals around Europe?
Why don’t US citizens directly elect their President? Or have a more proportional Senate?

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