Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions” as Want to Read:
The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions

4.03  ·  Rating Details ·  2,830 Ratings  ·  216 Reviews
From Karen Armstrong, the bestselling author of A History of God and The Spiral Staircase, comes this extraordinary investigation of a critical moment in the evolution of religious thought.In the ninth century BCE, events in four regions of the civilized world led to the rise of religious traditions that have endured to the present day--the development of Confucianism and ...more
Paperback, 592 pages
Published April 10th 2007 by Anchor (first published January 1st 2006)
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The Great Transformation, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about The Great Transformation

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
filter  |  sort: default (?)  |  Rating Details
Jul 22, 2011 William1 rated it really liked it
Karen Armstrong takes great mountains, virtual Everests, of wretched scholarly prose and turns them into something highly readable. She is a first-rate disseminator and popularizer of the history of religion. The Great Transformation reviews the history of what Karl Jaspers famously termed the "Axial Age." During this period, roughly 900-200 B.C.E., the foundations for all of our present religious traditions were laid down: Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, the other monotheism ...more
Jan 25, 2008 John rated it really liked it
The Great Transformation argues that the core religious/philosophical traditions of several major civilizations -- China, India, Greece, and Israel -- emerged at about the same time, for the same reasons, and were preoccupied with the same ideas. The time is what philosopher Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age, the period from approximately 700-200 B.C. when these civilizations all developed philosophical or religious tenets that emphasized what we might now call inner spiritual development rather ...more
Megan Anderson
Jul 14, 2012 Megan Anderson rated it it was amazing
This textbook covers the beginnings and transformation of the major world religions through the Axel Age, from 1600 BCE to 220 BCE, plus an epilogue that brings the history into the current time.

I borrowed this from our friend Steve last fall, and I haven’t had enough brain cells to absorb this much information until now. This was the textbook from one of his religion classes in undergrad (he’s a genius grad school engineer now), and he passed it on to me because he knew I’d love it. I have to g
P.J. Wetzel
Oct 13, 2013 P.J. Wetzel rated it liked it
I came to be aware of this book through my research for my distant future fantasy/sci-fi novel 'Ice King: The Last Messiah'. I wanted to understand the origin and evolution of mankind's religious journey in order to project a plausible future. That's a tall order, of course, but for me the study was a fascinating journey. I started by reading Huston Smith's iconic 'The World's Religions' and then began to delve deeper.

Along the way I had a little epiphany: It seemed that many major faith traditi
Nicholas Whyte
Dec 17, 2010 Nicholas Whyte rated it did not like it

This is a rather brave attempt to wring significance out of the fact that Confucius, the Buddha, Socrates and Jeremiah all lived at about the same time, between them causing a revolution in the way in which humans relate to the universe in philosophy and religion. It did not completely work for me. I found Armstrong's account of the evolution of the Old Testament as a product of the Jews' exile in Babylon pretty compelling, and we have a couple more of h
Feb 26, 2012 Jason rated it it was amazing
Karen Armstrong looks beyond doctrine to find a common core in the religious and philosophical traditions that emerged during the years 900 to 200 BCE - an era the German philosopher Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age. All around the world at the time, people were trying to address the question of violence and endless war.

What she found in the writings of the great thinkers and sages of Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, Judaism and the precursors of Christianity i
Much as I’d like to just leave my review to one word, fascinating, I don’t think that would be sufficient.
So, this book left me feeling just a bit uneducated as I know practically nothing about all but one of the religions discussed but I did find it curious, as obviously the author has, that all three would have such similar ideas at approximately the same time. The progression of each religion based on their geographical area and societal influences as well as their ultimate conclusions, whic
Charles Matthews
Dec 07, 2009 Charles Matthews rated it really liked it
We can be almost certain that somewhere, at this very moment, someone is committing an act of violence in the name of God. That troubling realization underlies this book, an attempt to reach back 2,500 years and more, to survey our earliest attempts to establish systems of belief that promise a release from human strife.

Karen Armstrong's "great transformation" took place in what the philosopher Karl Jaspers called "the Axial Age" – roughly seven centuries, starting around 900 B.C., in which the
Mar 28, 2015 Sarahj33 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
So I bought this book about three years ago at a street festival in Michigan when I was on a big non-fiction kick. I never got past the first couple of chapters because the writing felt pretty dense and seemed to assume that I had a background knowledge of things like the Assyrian Empire and the Book of Deuteronomy. I still don't know anything about those things, but I decided to give the book another go as part of my quest to actually read all the books that are languishing on my shelves before ...more
Tim Pendry

The core of this book is a solid account of the 'spiritual' traditions of four great civilisations (the Hellenistic-Pagan; the Judaean; the South Asian; and the Chinese) during the thousand or so years before the end of the third century BC. As far as it goes, it is an excellent and coherent narrative.

But I have my doubts. The story sometimes seems shoe-horned not only into the contention that all four cultures saw a first axial age that defined Old World culture until a second 'axial age' in th
Miroku Nemeth
Jan 19, 2015 Miroku Nemeth rated it really liked it
I have mixed feelings about this book. It's a perspective on history that is interesting in many ways, but very misleading in others. The attribution of nonviolence to peoples who were violent is really quite inexplicable if it was actually a historical analysis of the theoretical "axis age" (that this is a problematic construction is actually borne out by the tortured argument structure of the book), but it is a recurrent theme she uses to support her thesis throughout the 500 and some odd page ...more
Beginning with an exploration of Asian religious tradition, Karen Armstrong gradually moves to a general, and rather generic, call for religious tolerance. She focuses exclusively on the religious traditions of the Asian continent, notably Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, and while she does a cracking good job of it (her explication of Buddhist belief was the clearest I've ever read), she does so to the neglect of the contributions of the West to religious thought, notably Catholicism and post-Re ...more
Feb 21, 2012 Kathy rated it it was amazing
I read this book after reading Armstrong's wonderful book, "The Spiral Staircase." As a person who has never studied religious history, I lack the context for assessing Armstrong's treatment of the Axial Age during which major religions evolved versions of the Golden Rule. Her writing is very clear and easy to read, and she provides extensive documentation and explanations at the back. For me, the book was a captivating journey through a dimension of history that has fueled my curiosity. She sti ...more
Mar 15, 2012 Anita rated it it was amazing
The origins of religions have always been fascinating to me. This book does a great job of tracing them all back to the beginning. Very interesting, although the whole chapter on China was a bit long and tedious, and I found it hard to keep it all straight. It's really eye opening though, and leads to a better understanding of what motivates people in the ongoing "my God is better than your God" struggle. When you get right down to it, all religions are based on some type of cult following. They ...more
AC Fick
Jul 13, 2013 AC Fick rated it it was amazing
Armstrong is informed and informative without ever being didactic or preachy. This book, given the vast scope of its subject matter -- across time and space -- is infinitely readable, while always being detailed, specific, and accurate.

If you're intrigued by or interested in the history of the major religious and faith-based traditions in the world, this book is rewarding reading.

In fact, this ought to be required reading for all students of humanity; everyone, every last one of us, ought to rea
Jun 27, 2011 Lori rated it it was amazing
I have read this two times and now am having it read to me in bed by my husband, a release for gut centered pacifists pained by all these wars.
May 24, 2010 Cliff rated it really liked it
A bit dry but very well researched.
Apr 18, 2011 Tom rated it it was amazing
It took a long time to finish this book, but it is worth the effort. In its scope and importance, it reminds me of Ideas: from Fire to Freud, another very worthwhile book. However, this one is more focused and, in some ways, more original.

Armstrong deals with what the historian Karl Jaspers calls the Axial Age (that period between 900 and 200 BC) during which the major philosophical and religious traditions that exist today, began. She follows developments in this regard in 4 distinct regions an
What really impresses about this book is the amount of information and the author ability to bridge the gap between the major religions presented here. But, given the difficulty of the subject the large area and the vast time span, one cannot avoid feeling disconcerted as he passes from on religion to another, from one "sage" to another so that every reader is forced to read this book twice: one to familiarize himself with the commonalities and differences among each region and second to read on ...more
JJ Lehmann
Oct 21, 2016 JJ Lehmann rated it really liked it
Although I'm not quite convinced in the concept of an Axial age, it is quite fascinating that so many giants of the religion world arose around the same time. In my opinion, it seems that because of the violence and desperation of the time perhaps made both the populace open to and the ground fertile for the rise of spiritually intelligent people to combat this dukkha. It just seems to easy to connect them all.
That said, every academic field of study needs a person that can popularize its infor
Justin Sacher
Jan 09, 2017 Justin Sacher rated it it was amazing
My introduction to Armstrong was A Short History of Myth ten years ago. In my opinion, it's still the best one to start.
Each book since tops the last in its genius. And Transformations is of brilliant a leap forward as Fields of Blood.
If any author's collective work has made me a smarter person (and a more thoughtful human) in my adult life, it's Armstrong. Perhaps I've always been a more mathematically-minded person through my life and it's the way Armstrong relates aspects of the human experie
Jan 22, 2011 Sean rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
"The Great Transformation: The Beginnings of Religious Traditions" is the sort of scholarship you can come to expect from Karen Armstrong, an independent scholar from Britain who writes extensively on religious topics. She is able to take quite complicated issues and ideas and his able to make them accessible to a wider audience. This really is the biggest job of a scholar, whether independent or attached to a university- to be able to communicate your thoughts and ideas in a coherent way. If yo ...more
Dec 15, 2007 Adam rated it it was amazing
From The Washington Post's Book World/
In 1948, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the term "Axial Age" to denote an astonishing era, from roughly 900 B.C. to 200 B.C., in which the foundations of the world's great religions were laid. This was the time of Socrates, Elijah, Siddhartha, Confucius. In her magisterial new exploration of the era, Karen Armstrong argues that all Axial Age traditions emphasized justice and were committed to the practice of "disciplined sympat
Gijs Grob
Gelezen in de vertaling van Karina van Santen, Martine Vosmaer en Eelco Vijzelaar.

Een historische overzicht van wat de auteur naar Jaspers de 'spiltijd' noemt, de periode in de menselijke geschiedenis, van pakweg 800 tot 200 v. Chr. waarin al onze moderne religieuze tradities zijn ontstaan.

Armstrong behandelt een enorme hoeveelheid filosofen, theologen, profeten en auteurs, uit vier windstreken (Griekenland, Israël, India en China). Wat er in de rest van de wereld gebeurde, wordt volledig genege
Daniel Seifert
Armstrong, a religious historian in her own right, discusses four Axial cultures under that while they are not synchronic developments/transformations in human development, they are great Axial figures (900 BC to 200 CE) such as Zoroaster in Persia, Buddha in India, and Laozi and Confucius in China. Wile I am not a ride reader of history, I found helpful this rich background to my familiarity with Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that are categorized as “latter day flowerings of the Axi ...more
Jan 09, 2010 Mark rated it liked it
I like reading Karen Armstrong's books. This book is a travel through religious history, especially that of the Judaism and Christianity. It includes Islam, but not to the same extent. The book seems centered around the 'axial' age of religions; that is, the movements,mostly early on, that defined religious belief as a changing phenomenon motivated by individual betterment, rather than traditional acceptance of socially defined belief.

The book starts with the Aryans, around 1600 B.C.E and takes
Adam Snider
Nov 11, 2007 Adam Snider rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Pretty Much Anyone.
Overall this is a good read - I picked it up in an English bookstore in Graz because I had already read her A History of God and The Battle for God. Although the book is certainly written for a nonspecialist audience, it was well-researched without becoming bogged down in detail or footnotes. Armstrong is a very good writer, keeping the reader turning pages and generally offering a work both interesting and informative. The only real issue I would have with the organization of the book is the st ...more
Jul 16, 2013 Guillermojimenezespneo rated it did not like it
Mi estimada Karen es autora de algunos libros fundamentales en la historia de esa parte irracional del alma humana llamada religión. Esa estúpida dicotomía que permitió el nacimiento de las religiones de la sangre con su cauda de sufrimiento, dolor y muerte es explorada con claridad, profundidad, respeto y veracidad de una manera que yo no conocía, ni siquiera imaginaba. Como todo lego en los abismos de la esquizofrenia religiosa. Estaba en el canal Jaynes, para quien la religión es un remanente ...more
Choong Chiat
Apr 15, 2011 Choong Chiat rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In this extensive and intensive historical account of how the spiritual/philosophical/religious beliefs of the ancient Indians, Chinese, Greeks and Jews changed as their respective societal conditions underwent different changes, the author presents an eloquent, albeit implicit and perhaps unintended, case for how instead of Man being created in the image of God, it is more likely that God was created in the image of Man.

More explicitly, the author, in the concluding chapter of the book, recomme
Daniel Teo
Jan 04, 2009 Daniel Teo rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own, religion
In the Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong traces the origins and development of spiritual thought during the Axial Age. The Axial Age was a period between approximately 900 - 200 BC, in which new philosophical and religious concepts emerged in four disparate regions - namely China, India, Israel and Greece - and which still have a lasting impact on our world today.

Armstrong does an admirable job of expounding the political and social situations of the period, and how they eventually develope
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »
  • Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity
  • Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew
  • Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief
  • The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason
  • The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died
  • A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years
  • Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't
  • Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally
  • When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome
  • The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant
  • Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile
  • Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations
  • Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief
  • The Evolution of God
British author of numerous works on comparative religion.


Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information.
More about Karen Armstrong...

Share This Book

“Oedipus had to abandon his certainty, his clarity, and supposed insight in order to become aware of the dark ambiguity of the human condition.” 3 likes
“Unless there is some kind of spiritual revolution that can keep abreast of our technological genius, it is unlikely that we will save our planet. A purely rational education will not suffice.” 0 likes
More quotes…