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And Man Created God: Kings, Cults and Conquests at the Time of Jesus
by Selina O'Grady, published by Atlantic Books, ISBN 978-1843546962
Published Country Life, January 2013

This is compulsively good history; formed out of a single inquisitorial theme, restricted to an epoch but stretched out to encompass all the great civilizations of the old world. Selina O’Grady is also a first rate story-teller with a finely tuned ear for character and an impressive eye for atmosphere and the telling detail, be it the bill of lading of an Alexandrian merchant ship or the seasonal colour codes worn at the court of the Han Emperors, all extracted from the most lively historical sources. Selina O’Grady has concentrated her attention on the great villains of history, those manipulative, vengeful, envious, back-stabbing and successful power politicians who have sought to give legitimacy to the murders and usurpations with which they acquired their thrones, by subsequently wrapping themselves up in the cloak of religion. So despite the rather punchy title, and the approving cover endorsement from such a prominent atheist as A.C.Grayling, it is not so much an attack on the spiritual teachings of our Lord Jesus and the Lord Buddha, but on the men who subsequently manipulated their message to their own ends.

We are used to hearing about the deeds of Augustus and the seething, spiritually inventive Holy Land where Sadducess, Pharisees, Zealots, Essene monks and Babylonian Talmudic scholars jostled for cultural dominance beneath the surface glitter of the Herodian monarchs and their Hasmonean predecessors.

Less well-known figures summoned up by O’Grady’s narrative include Apollonius, a remarkably attractive faith-healer and Pythagorean seeker after righteousness on his lifelong pilgrimmage. I was also delighted to read of the invasion of Egypt by a one-eyed Nubian divine Queen at the same time that a Roman army was being led on a wild-goose chase into the deserts of Arabia. But most chillingly novel of all, in his deep dyed cynicism, is Kautilya, the chief minister to the first Emperor of India, who advised his master how to best hoodwink the people with the various cloaks of religion suited to each class and caste of man. So that compared to Kautilya, ‘Machiavelli’s The Prince is harmless’. Next to him in double-dealing hypocrisy was the public espousal of Mahayana Buddhism by the otherwise bloodthirsty ‘cruel and temperamental’ Kushan Nomad Kings. Though the Uriah Heap of ancient history is undoubtedly Wang Mang, who twisted the Confucian creed (a humanistic code of harmony, balance and obedience) to allow him to back himself onto the throne whilst bowing deeply.

At the end of the book, Selina O’Grady turns her attention to St Paul, and explains how he transformed the teachings of a Jewish Galilean holyman into a cult eminently suitable for wealthy middle-class women and prosperous ex-slaves of mixed-culture, all looking for an identity in the burgeoning cities of the Roman empire. Revealing how this life work was fuelled from his own neurotic desire to conciliate the schisms within himself. And in the background one hears the ghosts of Gibbon and Nietzsche adding their own hearty ‘Amen’.

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