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“The One and the Only God”

April 29, 2013

I’ve just finshed reviewing a new book much worthy of attention for any of us interested in earliest Christianity and the religious environment in which it sprang forth:  Darina Staudt, Der eine und einzige Gott:  Monotheistische Formeln im Urchristentum und ihre Vorgeschichte bei Griechen und Juden, NTOA/SUNT 80 (Göttingen:  Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012).

This is a survey-analysis of the use of several “forms” (fixed expressions) used in ancient texts that figure in discourse about gods:  εἷς θεός (“one god”), μόνος θεός (“only god”), and οὐκ ἔστιν ἔτι πλήν (“there is no other”).  The main purpose of her study is to trace the background and possible influences upon the way in which “monotheistic” language is used in early Christian sources, and also how the risen/exalted Jesus is so readily incorporated into what we may call “God-discourse”.  She doesn’t really address the latter question about Jesus-devotion until the final four pages of her conclusion, and I’m not sure that this is adequate.  But she has contributed a valuable study of the history and usage of these expressions, showing how in various texts they were used to signify different things.

The evidence surveyed is impressively wide, commencing with the “pre-Socratics”, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and Roman-era writers, and then into OT, Jewish texts of the Hellenistic-Roman period, Philo of Alexandria, Josephus, the NT, the Apostolic Fathers, and subsequent Christian usage.  Throughout, she draws upon previous scholarly studies and contributes her own observations, guided by her concern to trace development and identify particularities of usage.

The basic conclusions are these:  (1) The “one god” expression derives from two “roots”, OT usage (esp. Deut 6:4) in the 7th century BCE and early Greek philosophical usage  (esp. Xenophanes), although this early Greek usage seems to have had little take-up or effect subsequently until the Hellenistic period, (2) especially as used in “pagan” Greek circles, “one god” isn’t a declaration of “monotheism” but instead essentially a way of praising a particular deity, an “elative” sense; (3) the “only god” expression seems to derive from OT/Jewish usage (traced back to the 5th-3rd centuries BCE) and expresses an “exclusive” claim that the biblical deity is the only rightful recipient of worship; (4) the “there is no other (god)” phrasing derives specifically from Deutero-Isaiah and is a more explicit and polemical expression of the uniqueness of the biblical deity.

One of the interesting features of her study is the variation among authors/texts.  For example, Philo (a Diaspora Jew in Alexandria) used both the “one God” and “only God” expressions, whereas Josephus (another Jew writing in a Diaspora setting) uses these expressions less frequently and more selectively, appearing to distance himself somewhat from the “only God” expression (which he tends to place on the lips of Jewish rebels in his account of the Jewish war against Rome).

NT writers used the “only God” expressions only seldom, preferring the “one God” expression.  She proposes that the reasons for this are that the latter more readily allowed for the inclusion of Jesus with God (“the Father”) in earliest Christian worship and belief.  Nevertheless, we see the influence of the exclusivity of ancient Jewish tradition in that earliest Christian belief and devotional practice admitted Jesus uniquely and no other, producing a distinctively “binitarian” version of “monotheistic” belief/practice.

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4 Comments
  1. Ali Hussain permalink

    Jesus upheld’s the ‘ ONE GOD ‘ creed of the Jews in Mark 12:28-34 , it would have been a perfect time for Jesus to introduce his own self in the Jewish shema but he did not do that . If Jesus himself did not do that , then what made the early Christians to introduce Jesus in the ‘ one God ‘ ?

    • As I´ve indicated a number of times, the NT writers give as the basis for the devotion to Jesus God´s exaltation of Jesus, in connection with his resurrection, and God´s expressed will that Jesus be given the same honor as given to God: e.g., John 5.24-25. They don´t worship Jesus because he told them to do so, but because they believed that God required it.

  2. Bain Wellington permalink

    I have some difficulty (whether with you or with Ms Staudt I cannot say) with what are reported as “basic conclusions” 1) and 2). I realise that the argument is necessarily compressed for the purposes of your blog-post and that pre-Hellenistic Greek material has no great bearing on your main point, but . . .

    Under 1), is it really the case that εἷς θεός features “in early Greek philosophical usage”? Among the Presocratics, surely this term is *only* found in one extant fragment of Xenophanes (D-K, 21 B 23). And what is said under 2) seems to relate not to εἷς θεός but to usage of ὁ θεός and τò θεῖον in (to go no further) Homer – whom nobody accuses of monotheism.

    • I’m on holidays 2-15 May and so can’t respond to details. I agree Xenophon should be Xenophanes. My hasty error. But no one says he or any other pagans in question were “monotheists”in the sense of the word as used for Jews.

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