Origins of World Belief Systems Review for AP World History (page 3)

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Updated on Mar 4, 2011


Another philosophy that developed in response to the Era of Warring States was Daoism. Its founder was Lao-zi (or Lao-tsu), who is believed to have lived during the fifth century B.C.E. The philosophy adapted traditional Chinese concepts of balance in nature, or yin (male, assertive) and yang (female, submissive). According to Daoist philosophy, human understanding comes from following "The Way," a life force which exists in nature.

In contrast to the Confucian respect for education and for orderly government, Daoism taught that political involvement and education were unnecessary. Rather, in time, the natural balance of the universe would resolve most problems. Chinese thought and practice gradually blended both Confucianism and Daoism to include a concern for responsibility for the community and time for personal reflection.


The concept of monotheism, or the worship of one god, is attributed to the Hebrews, or Jews. The Hebrews traced their origins back to Abraham, who migrated from Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean about 2000 B.C.E. Because of a serious famine in the land of Canaan, the descendants of Abraham migrated to Egypt, which had escaped famine. There the Hebrews remained for about 430 years, part of this time serving as slaves under the pharaohs. The Exodus from Egypt under the leadership of Moses was marked by the giving of the Ten Commandments, or moral law of the Hebrews. Returning to the land of Canaan, or Palestine, they established a theocracy, or a government ruled directly by God.

The heart of Judaism was a covenant, or agreement, between God and Abraham in which Yahweh would be their god and the Jews would be his people. The history of this covenant relationship became the basis of the Torah, or the Hebrew scriptures.

After years of observing the governments of neighboring kingdoms, the Hebrews established the kingdom of Israel about 1000 B.C.E. under Saul. During the rule of Saul's successor, David, Jerusalem became the capital of Israel. The kingdom began weakening under David's successor Solomon because of the heavy taxes he imposed. Eventually dividing into two kingdoms, the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E. Its inhabitants were scattered throughout the far reaches of the Assyrian empire, constituting the first Jewish diaspora, or exile. The southern kingdom, called Judah, endured until 586 B.C.E. Conquered by the Chaldeans (from approximately the same territory as the Babylonian Empire), the people of Judah were carried off into captivity into Babylon. When Cyrus conquered the Chaldeans and allowed the Jews to return to Palestine 70 years later, Palestine remained under Persian rule until it became the province of Judea under the Roman Empire in 63 C.E. In 132 C.E., after they rebelled against Roman rule, the Jews were spread throughout the Roman Empire in a second diaspora.

Unlike other religions of the period, notably Buddhism and Christianity, Judaism was not a missionary religion. Although the Jews had lived in Babylon for seventy years, with some Jews remaining after most of the former captives returned to Babylon, they did little to attempt to convert non-Jews. From the Jewish faith, however, would come another major world religion: Christianity.


A key element of Judaism was the belief that God had promised to send the Jews a Messiah, or a savior from their sins. Some of the early Jews felt that that promise was fulfilled when Jesus was born in the Roman province of Judea about 4 to 6 B.C.E. As an adult, Jesus and his 12 disciples, or followers, went throughout the land of Judea, preaching the forgiveness of sins. Jesus was also called Christ, meaning "anointed." When Jesus' teachings were feared as a threat to Roman and Jewish authority, cooperation between both Jewish and Roman leaders led to his trial and death by crucifixion. Jesus' resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven fueled the zeal of his early followers.

The network of Roman roads facilitated the spread of Christianity throughout the empire. Missionaries, traders, and other travelers carried the Christian message of forgiveness of sins and an afterlife in heaven for those who believed in Jesus as their savior from sin. The greatest missionary of the early Christian church was Paul of Tarsus. A Roman citizen, he undertook three missionary journeys throughout the Roman Empire in the first century C.E. Accounts of Jesus' life in addition to the missionary efforts of Paul and other followers of Jesus are found in the New Testament of the Christian Bible.

Several Roman emperors considered Christianity a threat to their rule. Although some, such as Diocletian, persecuted the Christian church, it continued to grow. In 313, the Roman Emperor Constantine changed the position of earlier Roman emperors regarding Christianity. In the Edict of Milan he permitted the practice of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 381 under the Emperor Theodosius.

After its adoption as the state church of Rome, Christianity in the west began developing an organization under the leadership of the bishop of Rome, or pope. In addition to priests who served local churches, monks and nuns withdrew from society to devote their time to prayer and meditation. As it spread throughout the Roman world, Christianity gained popularity because of its appeal to all social classes, especially the poor. Women received new status as Christianity taught that men and women were equal in matters of faith. After the fall of the western Roman Empire, Christianity spread to northern Europe, the Balkans, and Russia.

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Although polytheism was the most common religious belief among early agricultural and nomadic peoples, a number of major belief systems arose before 600 C.E. Monotheism was the gift of Judaism, which, in turn, became the source of the Christian religion. In India, two faiths—Hinduism and Buddhism—emerged from the diverse social structure of South Asia. In China, Confucianism and Daoism blended family and political order with the balance of nature to define Chinese philosophical thought.

Review questions for this study guide can be found at:

Origins of World Belief Systems Review Questions for AP World History

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