A Lesson from Marco Polo


An Unintended Consequence of Monotheism


From Marco Polo’s writings I learned that, except for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, deities had only regional jurisdiction.  This meant that travelers who understood this and learned something of the local culture and customs where they happened to be were more likely to be well-received and to survive to write and tell about their adventures.


Marco Polo’s father and uncle were Venetians who traveled to China from 1261 to 1268, but left no record of their experiences.  When they undertook a new journey in 1271, they brought seventeen year old Marco along.  Marco kept extensive notes including descriptions of the cultures and customs of the lands through which they passed.  During our stay in Afghanistan from 1968 –70 our family intersected the Polos’ route through that country at several points including Faisabad, the remote provincial capital at the entrance to the Wakhan Corridor to China through the Pamir Mountains—up to 23,000 feet high.  Presumably Marco Polo would have climbed a couple of “easy” 17,000 foot foothills except that mountaineering was not invented until the nineteenth century.  “Rubbing elbows” with Marco Polo in Asia explains my special fascination with his accomplishments—compare with space travel in our time. 


In 1987 my wife, Mary, and I stumbled on a placard in a city park along China’s Yangtze River commemorating Marco Polo’s stay there as governor for two years—he did not return to Venice until 1295, a 24 year absence.  Historians doubt that he was governor, and there is no other evidence confirming his writings on this point.  Could it be that the Chinese erected the placard to excite the interest of European and American tourists?  In any event Marco Polo must have become an enormously accomplished diplomat at a rather young age, and he must have been at least an envoy for the emperor in this province. *


The insight about deities having only local or regional jurisdiction was implicit in the data from Marco Polo’s observations of the various cultures through which he traveled although not explicitly stated anywhere in the book, The Travels of Marco Polo. The local jurisdiction of most deities explains the absence of proselytizing by the vast majority of the world’s religions.  In Afghanistan we were impressed by the universal knowledge of Moslems that Islam is an outgrowth of Judaism and Christianity.  Proselytizing became a matter of social consciousness to inform the heathen of “the one true religion”.  It was humbling to realize that the Moslems credit us Christians (and Jews) as being less heathen than other unbelievers, but we scarcely return the favor. 


Why do the Jews not proselytize?  I remembered  that they ceased only at the insistence of the Romans (and Christians in more modern times).  The three monotheistic religions agree that Jehovah, God the Father, and Allah are different names for the same God.  I wondered where I got the information that the Jews did some significant proselytizing until Roman times.   Some digging in the Public Library with help from the librarian demonstrated that this is not widely known (we couldn’t find anything on the subject).  Then some digging in my own mind, and I remembered reading The Thirteenth Tribe by Arthur Koestler a few years ago. On re-reading the book I found an explicit statement about the Romans/Christians putting a stop to Jews proselytizing (page 61).  Koestler’s book is primarily about the Khazars, a nation on the lower Volga River, which became officially Jewish on the conversion of their King in the eighth century of the common era.  The king did not compel all citizens to convert—the males would have had to be circumcised, but the nation was spared the necessity of taking sides in the developing Moslem-Christian imbroglio.  Koestler’s idea that modern Eastern European Jews were descended from Khazars after their dispersal by Ghengis Khan 300 years later is not widely accepted by historians, but this does not invalidate all of Koestler’s scholarship.  If modern DNA technology should show great similarity between present day Eastern and Western European Jews, this


*      The Chinese explored much of the known world in the early 15th century.  It is noteworthy that they made no attempt to colonize or otherwise exploit the places they visited. For more see:  “Why the Chinese didn’t Discover the Rest of the World” on page 101 or on my website:  < www.frantzmd.medem.com >.

would not entirely prove the point because the Khazars took in many Christian and Jewish immigrants as refugees from forced conversions by Christians and Moslems, so most of the dispersed Jews would have been ethnic Jews and not have the genetics of the indigenous Khazars.   (Some Christian conversions of Jews were achieved by torture. The Moslems used increased taxes for non-Moslems. The Khazars’ conversion was voluntary.


Marco Polo’s insight about the limited regional jurisdiction of other deities reminded me that most Moslems and Christians have not figured out that, in spite of their perceived mandate to proselytize, a just and merciful God would not send the heathen to hell merely because of lazy or absent missionaries. This is the unintended consequence of monotheism. Is distrust of human beings who are not sufficiently like ourselves inborn?  Probably so, along with tribalism.  Did we come by this naturally?  Jane Goodall, who studied chimpanzees in the wild for a decade or so, now has an orphanage for chimpanzees whose mothers were killed by poachers.  She is unable to release them into the wild where chimpanzees attempt to kill all strange members of their species.  Jane keeps her wards in plain sight of the local villagers many of whom have decided that the chimps are so like us that they no longer eat them—animal rights is coming to Africa, and that’s a good thing.  Is our tribalism indeed less extreme than that of chimpanzees?


The idea of a just and merciful God not sending the heathen to hell because of lazy or absent missionaries is my own, acquired in mid-childhood from two ecclesiastically trained parents and from many missionaries on home leave who were entertained in our household through the years.  I knew that the idea would “not play in Peoria”,*  so I have rarely mentioned it.  My mother was the youngest child of Samuel Kellogg, 1839-99, a very eminent missionary to India and author of Kellogg’s Hindi Grammar.  Revisions of the book after his death continued to carry his name.  Compare with Gray’s Anatomy.  For an example of her quick and generous wit, read A Battlefield Commission as Robin Hood on page 116. 


A more somber interpretation: monotheism has carried our human version of tribalism to excess.  Considering the history of religious warfare tells us to look at what we have in common with strangers especially if we are far from our natal groups (as was Marco Polo).  When you are among Islamic strangers, strive to be labeled guest—cordial treatment of guests is literally an Islamic sacrament.  Another humbling cross-cultural insight: Christian missionary success in India was severely blunted by the Hindu leaders who, in all sincerity, told their people “A great man has come from afar to tell us of a new path to God.  Let us listen carefully.”  Hindus believe that all religions contain some truth and that Hinduism encompasses it all.  Why should they want to convert to some detail of the whole?  The Achilles heel of Hinduism is their pervasive caste system (not sacred cows), so most Christian converts in India are untouchables, the lowest caste who have the least to lose. **


My experience in Asia tells me that education helps us to transcend sectarianism/tribalism and that medicine crosses cultural barriers more than most other human activities.  An example closer to home: Harvard University was founded by Puritans.  They have had a non-denominational theological school for several generations.  Are the Puritans rolling over in their graves?  I close with a joke from my mother.  Her jokes frequently had an occult narrative.  The YMCA camp in Estes Park, Colorado, had an annual “Conference for Spiritual Athletes”.  My mother knew that it was for evangelical Christians who happened to be star athletes, but she asked facetiously, “Are Spiritual athletes adept at several religions, decathlon theologians if you will?”

John A. Frantz, MD  

August 28, 2006


*      “Would not play In Peoria” refers to the test marketing of vaudeville or Broadway plays before bothering to organize a tour of these in the conservative American heartland—Peoria is the paradigm of such conservative cities (Oshkosh, Wisconsin, a close second)..


**    Not  eating beef is no more central to Hinduism than not eating meat on Friday is to Christianity. Fish on Friday came about in colonial Rhode Island because most of the fishermen were Portuguese, Catholic and under-employed.