Before Christianity, there was Judaism. And before that, there were the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and other civilizations, all of which believed in multiple gods. Many will be surprised to learn, however, that Judaism was not the first religion to believe in only one god – there is one even older. Oh, and in that same religion, its central figure is believed to have been born of a virgin – long before Jesus Christ ever had been.
And speaking of Jesus, references to him are found all throughout Muslim scripture, aka the Quran. In fact, the Quran’s conveyor, Muhammad, claimed to have been the “Comforter” Jesus spoke about in John 16:7 – “for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.”
For those who think that monotheism began with the Old Testament, and that the Quran has nothing to do with Jesus, Harold Rosen’s Founders of Faith: the Parallel Lives of God’s Messengers is a fascinating if not indispensable read.
Rosen, a professor of philosophy and religion, presents the notion that there have been seven figures throughout world history that meet the standard of being Founders of Faith: Moses, Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Christ, Muhammad, and the Bahaiullah. Rosen maintains that there are 25 aspects that set apart each of them as Founders, as opposed to the countless other religious figures that have ever existed. Here are the 25 aspects, which he discusses extensively, in the form of a list – due to space limitation, we will only address a few of them, briefly:
- Continuity with previous dispensations
- Arising to guide humanity in the worst of times
- Advent prophesied and expected
- Auspicious signs, birth, and intimation of greatness
- Divine commission
- Struggling in solitude
- Declaration and first followers
- Overcoming powerful opposition
- Rejection by the people
10. Sacrificial suffering
11. Symbolic language as a test for believers
12. Exemplary women for all ages
13. Dying and ascending victoriously
14. Transformative teaching and healing
15. Delivering a thematic and complementary message
16. Renewing and embodying universal virtues
17. Abrogating the old and establishing the new
18. Human and divine qualities
19. The light and the word
20. Affirming four levels of reality – divine, revelatory, human, and natural
21. Promising a future savior and the age of spiritual maturation
22. Essential unity of the revealers through the ages
23. Laying enduring foundations
24. Renewing scriptural guidance
25. Generating civilization anew
Most Americans know a good deal about Moses and Christ, and have some conceptions – and often, even more misconceptions – about Buddha and Muhammad. Fewer may even know of Krishna, believed by Hindus to have been an incarnation of the god Vishnu. And even less are familiar with the other two Founders about which Rosen writes: Zoroaster and the Bahaiullah.
Also called Zarathustra, Zoroaster was born thousands of years before Christ, in Persia. He wrote and spoke based on revelations he says he received from the one and only god – Ahura Mazda – centered on the notion that life is a constant struggle between good and evil, and that we humans are judged by our acts in this life. Nonetheless, at “the end of time,” all souls, even the ones that committed evil acts, will be reunited with God. This concept, at least 6000 years older than Christianity, is consistent with Christian universalism, but contradictory to the idea of eternal damnation for some, propounded by most Christian sects and by Islam.
Rosen culminates his epic study by writing about the seventh Founder of Faith, the Bahaiullah, establisher of the most recent major monotheistic religion – Bahai. The Bahaiullah founded this faith in Persia in the 1800s which, by religious chronology, renders it a religion still in its infancy. Like Zoroastrians, Bahais believe that all people will find their way to God at some point in their universal and eternal journey. They also believe that humans in this life will find that way when there is total unity: one language, one government, one religion, covering the entire planet.
To that end, Bahais believe, and Rosen explains in great detail, that all seven Founders had both human and divine qualities, and that God sent each of them to reveal a particular message. Each Founder would follow the one before, beginning with Moses and ending, for now, with the Bahaiullah. Unlike Christians, however, who believe that only Christ was God personified, and will come again, and Muslims, who believe that Muhammad was the last of the prophets sent by God, Bahais believe that every 1000 years or so God will send a new messenger to spread God’s word, and that the message changes because with each successive emissary, civilization is ready to accept a different revelation.
Moreover, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and worshippers of countless other Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Babylonian, and Assyrian religions have believed for centuries that various deities, demigods, or other divine figures in their respective religions were born of virgins. Many Christians, upon learning of the dozens of stories of virgin births – including three among the seven Founders, Zoroaster, Krishna, and Buddha – prior to the story of the virgin birth of Jesus are initially troubled. Their own faith is shaken. They wonder: “is it possible that the so-called virgin birth was merely an adaptation of old myths that existed about saviors virtually since the beginning of time?” Tidbits like that provide atheists with ammunition to say: “you see, there is no God, there is no Jesus, it’s just an old tale reworded for a new group of naive people.”
Moreover, Christians, Muslims, and believers of other faiths often contend that theirs is “the only true religion.” They are often quick to find flaws in every other faith, and quick to rationalize any contradiction in their own. The Bahais, however, embrace the six Founders that preceded the Bahaiullah, Rosen writes, and see them not as rivals but all as essential components of God’s ultimate plan to reveal His word and His wisdom to His children here on earth.
For those thirsting to learn about the many wondrous religious philosophies outside their own, and who are open-minded enough at least to encounter them, without being gripped by the fear that they are doing something wrong (i.e., that they will make God “mad” by doing so), Founders of Faith is a wonderful place to begin.