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Questions about “Monotheism”

May 4, 2011

Having used the expression “ancient Jewish monotheism” in the sub-title of my 1988 book (One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism), it’s been interesting thereafter to note the apparently rising interest in “monotheism” in ancient religion.  E.g., there is now a programme unit on the topic in the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, and Nathan MacDonald directs a major, funded research project on the topic:

On the other hand, a number of scholars have rightly noted the problem in using the term “monotheism” for any of the traditional religious traditions to which it has often been applied.  Per most dictionaries, “monotheism” means denying the existence of any but one deity.  But it is not clear that ancient Jews and Christians denied the absolute existence of other gods, and in at least some texts it seems clear that they did acknowledge that other gods exist.  So “monotheism” as typically defined is dubiously applied to these traditions.

Since my 1988 book, I’ve urged that if “monotheism” is used at all it has to be informed by the specifics of the beliefs and practices of those to whom we apply the term, and I’ve also contended that there are varieties of “monotheism”.  So, e.g., I proposed that the chronological data require us to see the eruption of a remarkable Jesus-devotion originating as a religious innovation within Roman-era Jewish tradition, producing a novel “mutation” in ancient Jewish monotheism in which two distinguishable figures (God and Jesus) are programmatically treated as unique recipients of devotion.

In two more recent essays (not yet published), I’ve noted that scholars now frequently refer to “pagan monotheism”, typically meaning by that expression ideas of a single “high-god” over a pantheon, or a single divine substance of which all the particular deities are manifestations.  So long as we use the full expression “pagan monotheism” and note that it is quite different from ancient Jewish and Christian beliefs and practices, that’s fine.  It’s not “monotheism”, it’s “pagan monotheism”.

On this premise, I’ve then also argued that we can use the expression “ancient Jewish monotheism” to designate the well-known  exclusivist stance characteristic of second-temple Jewish tradition:  the insistence that only the one biblical deity is worthy of worship, and that worship of any other being (including heavenly/divine beings) constitutes idolatry.  This isn’t “monotheism” (as Englightenment thinkers imagined it), it’s “ancient Jewish monotheism”.

And in my most recent essay on this matter (presented at a recent mini-conference in Lausanne), I’ve proposed that we use the expression “early Christian monotheism” to designate the distinctive exclusivist stance characteristic of early Christianity.  This involved a rejection of the worship of “the gods” in favor of the one biblical deity (as in the parent tradition of second-temple Judaism), but with the distinguishing new element of including the glorified Jesus as also rightful (even required) object of faith and co-recipient of worship.  Again, this isn’t “monotheism” of the dictionaries; it’s “early Christian monotheism”.

Finally, because my use of the term “binitarian” to describe earliest Christian devotion has drawn so much misunderstanding, I’ve dropped it in favor of referring to the shape of earliest Christian devotion as a “structured dyad”:  God (“the Father”) and Jesus, with Jesus defined and reverenced typically with reference to God (i.e., not as a second deity, but as the unique expression and agent of the one deity).  So, we could refer to earliest Christian devotion as “dyadic” in shape.  Hopefully, this term will occasion less misunderstanding, and fewer accusations of trying to import later conceptions into the earliest expressions of Jesus-devotion.

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  1. Interesting discussion and impressive in that the responses include much serious engagement with the subject and with individual posters. I enjoy reading over the shoulders of thoughtful scholars.

    Permit me to add: so far as is known, First Century CE Diaspora Jews were exempt from pressure to worship the emperor, in exchange for offering prayers for (not to?) the emperor in the Jerusalem temple. But I wonder if efforts to pin down and therefore to categorize what actually was going on in cultic circles (Jewish or otherwise) inevitably must fail for lack of data. Seems like all suggestions must be considered provisional guesses.

    Second point: perhaps we ought acknowledge that monotheism was not practiced or believed by first century messianists (now known as Christians) when resort is made to qualifications (mentioned in the first post above) such as “binitarian” or “structured dyad” with the early worship of Jesus brought into view.

    I think monotheism discussions today are conducted with the ancient creeds in mind – which makes it difficult to say simply, Christians do not practice monotheism and never have.

    • Well, we do have reports from Josephus about the Jerusalem temple operation, and numerous texts (including notably NT ones) that give us glimpses of synagogue activities (prayer, reading scriptures), though frustratingly limited. But we know jolly well what devout Jews thought of worship of any deity but the biblical one, from Jewish writers of the period (Josephus, Philo, et alia), reflecting both Judea/Palestine and the Diaspora. We aren’t guessing about what we know. We just wish that we had more complete knowledge of details. But on the question of whether devout Jews would agree to worship other deities, we aren’t guessing!
      As for whether early Christians did or did not practice “monotheism”, two responses. First, as I’ve stated already, virtually nobody in the ancient world was a “monotheist” if you use the standard dictionary definition (which requires denying existence of any deity but one). But, more to the point you’re making, two observations: (1) Early Christians such as reflected in the NT emphatically affirmed “one God” and vigorously aligned themselves with Jewish resistance to participation in the worship of the gods; and (2) in the eyes of at least some early Jews, however, the inclusion of Jesus as recipient of devotion with God compromised such a claim.
      It’s a theological judgement, not a historical one. Historically, I think we have to say that earliest Christians represent a distinctive variant version of Jewish “monotheistic” practice, in which they include Jesus as the unique agent/image of the one God.

  2. Tony permalink

    “As I’ve indicated, it’s not that simple or clear. Likewise, the line between “deity/god” and other spiritual beings was not so rigid as one might assume in the modern setting. Human rulers could be gods and receive worship. The issue for ancient Jews and Christians wasn’t the existence of such beings but their validity as recipients of worship.”

    Should there be some distinction highlighted between the truly existent one (uncreated) supreme deity with its intrinsic worship validity over the merely created worshiped idols?

    Is that language helpful?

    • Maybe, if one can find support for these ideas in a given text, then one could ascribe them to the text. The point in historical work that I do is not to try to fit texts into conceptual categories arising from our situation but to try to understand them in their own terms. And my consistent point has been that the most readily observable indication of “ancient Jewish/Christian monotheism” is the refusal to worship of deities. The rationale for this refusal varies in the ancient texts.

  3. ” But it is not clear that ancient Jews and Christians denied the absolute existence of other gods, and in at least some texts it seems clear that they did acknowledge that other gods exist. ”

    What sources you are referring to?

    • Well, as illustrative, the following: In Psa 82, “God” is pictured as standing forth (presiding?) in a heavenly council of gods. It’s poetry, granted, but as Heiser and Mach and others have shown references to a council of heavenly beings continues on down into 2nd temple period. The Qumran texts likewise refer to God and to gods. In some cases the other gods are referred to derisively as “demons” (as in 1 Cor 10:19-22).

      • I see Mr. Hurtado. Thank you for responding, just one more question if I may… Is it safe to say then, that ancient Jews and Christians, did deny the existence of other gods by only accepting there existence if it was tied to demonic influence?

        Obviously demons are lesser than an actual god, so is this line of thinking valid?

      • As I’ve indicated, it’s not that simple or clear. Likewise, the line between “deity/god” and other spiritual beings was not so rigid as one might assume in the modern setting. Human rulers could be gods and receive worship. The issue for ancient Jews and Christians wasn’t the existence of such beings but their validity as recipients of worship.

  4. Daniel O. McClellan permalink

    I appreciate you taking the time to let me pick your brain on this issue, Larry. Would it be accurate to say you’re arguing monotheism should be seen as a practice rather than a belief?

    • Before we proceed, please note that in my posting I distinguished “monotheism” (as per dictionaries, a belief that there is only one deity) from “ancient Jewish monotheism”. It is the latter to which I now speak.
      There are components of belief and practice involved, but I make two claims: (1) in the ancient world, the key expression of one’s religion, and for ancient Jews the key religious scruple, was worship, “ancient Jewish monotheism” (the expression I propose) primarily expressed in an exclusivist worship practice; and (2) in Western scholarship beliefs/doctrines have been the most important indicator of “religions”, and there is a limited ability to recognize the far more crucial role of worship in ancient texts/settings.
      There was belief: The firmest expressions of “ancient Jewish monotheism” included the claim that the worship of any deity other than the biblical deity, by any people, constituted “idolatry”. That is, Jewish practice and belief wasn’t simply “monolatry” (usually defined as a given person/group restricting their worship to one deity, or preferring one deity). There was a universal claim about the exclusive right of the one deity to receive worship.

  5. Larry, you may be interested to know that Thomas Römer and Saul Olyan have put together three sessions at the London SBL in July to examine whether “monotheism” is any longer a usable word in Old Testament studies. OT studies has come a little late to this question, but there is now here a clear shift in perspective. I posted the paper titles and abstracts at It would have been interesting to have pursued the discussion with a wider set of interlocutors, such as NT scholars, classicists, theologians or religious studies scholars.

    • Hmm. Yes, it does appear from the list of papers/abstracts that they’re raking over issues that have been engaged for over 20 yrs among scholars of NT and 2nd-temple Judaism. In addition to my own early work in my 1988 book, “One God, One Lord”, there is also the 1991 article by Peter Hayman, who challenged the validity of “monotheism” as a term for ancient Jewish religion: Peter Hayman, “Monotheism – A Misused Word in Jewish Studies?,” Journal of Jewish Studies 42, no. 1 (1991): 1-15.

  6. I believe much of the confusion comes from the fact that we use the same terminology to identify both the one unique supreme being and other supernatural beings. Even the original languages of the Bible use the same terms to identify the one unique supreme being and other supernatural beings. This leads me to believe that the words God, Deity, Theos and Elohim are not always meant to specifically identify the one supreme being’s unique position.

    • You’re introducing another topic, the confusion or unexamined assumptions in popular usage of the word “god/God”. For some of my own reflections on this, see my newest book, God in New Testament Theology (Abingdon Press, 2010).

      • Howard permalink

        I may have misinterpreted your intent with your remarks on monotheism. After reading over your original post and the comments, it appears that you are merely pointing out that the usual dictionary definition of monotheism does not accurately explain what actually took place among early Jewish and Christian worship. As the word monotheism is defined as “belief in one God”, its use would indicate that early Jews and Christians did not incorporate the existence of other gods/divine beings into their overall beliefs system. And this is where I went into my tangent in the other post, and attempted to explain what it might mean when the Bible refers to someone other then YHWH as a god/divine being. But you are right, if the Bible does talk about other divine beings and they have a real existence, then the word monotheism is inaccurate when discussing Jewish or Christian beliefs and practices.

  7. Daniel O. McClellan permalink

    I think you make an important distinction, Larry. I’m currently looking at this very question, but I am also trying to incorporate discussion of the instances in the New Testament, 1 Enoch, 4Q246, and other eschatological literature where other divine beings, and even humans, are expected to receive worship.

    • Er, I have to question your premise: Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, I don’t find any instances in 2nd-temple Jewish texts where beings other than YHWH receive cultic worship. I presume that you’ve familiarized yourself with the intense critical discussion that has gone on about the matter. E.g., the English word “worship” and the ancient translation-equivalents all can be used to designate a wide variety of reverential actions. I’ve tried fairly explicitly to define what I mean when I say that devout Jews of the time restricted “worship” to YHWH: see, e.g., my book, At the Origins of Christian Worship, esp. pp. 65-69.

      • Daniel O. McClellan permalink

        Thanks for the reply, Larry. I am familiar with the discussion, and I would point out that the Old Greek of Daniel 7:14 (P967 and Codex 88) uses a form of the verb λατρευω in reference to worship to be given to the Son of Man. What about this example problematizes the conclusion that cultic worship is being directed at a being other than Yhwh?

      • I’m talking about real worship, actually going on, actually practiced among devout Jewish groups. There are visionary scenes where the Elect One (often mistakenly referred to as “the son of Man”) in 1 Enoch is pictured as to receive reverence, but in the early Christian texts we have reflections of actual cultic practice, the specifics of which I listed as far back as my 1988 book. In the 20+ yrs since then I’ve invited scholars to provide a parallel of another Jewish group in which there was performed a similar constellation of cultic practices involving a figure distinguished from God. No offers yet. The question isn’t what people may have dramatically portrayed in apocalyptic scenes of the future, but what actual worship practices they felt free to perform.

  8. George permalink

    Larry, thanks for this posting. I am curious as to whether various instances of “monotheism” can be distinguished according to how they define the relationship between the god referred to in the “mono” and the other gods. That is, is there any sense in which “ancient Jewish monotheism” suggests, as do many pagan African religions, that the one god or highest god is in fact the creator of the lower gods? In the African religions that hold this belief, worship of the many gods is portrayed as a pragmatic response to the elusive or even estranged status of the one high god. See for instance Magesa’s “African Religion.” In modern Orthodox Judaism, as in modern Christianity, the worship of the one god includes an acknowledgment that all lower “gods” are either nonexistent or are creatures (i.e. fallen angels) who but pretend to deserve the sort of autonomous worship accorded to the one God.

    • The idea that there is a “high god” who presides over the others, and in some cases is portrayed as “father” of the pantheon, is common in ancient near eastern settings. See, e.g., M. P. Nilsson, “The High God and the Mediator,” Harvard Theological Review 56, no. 2 (1963): 101-20; Morton Smith, “The Common Theology of the Ancient Near East,” Journal of Biblical Literature 71 (1952): 135-47.
      In the Hebrew Bible, YHWH is often referred to as “YHWH of the hosts”, alluding to YHWH as presiding over vast multitudes of heavenly beings. IN Psa 82, YHWH is pictured as presiding over a heavenly council of divine beings (Hebrew: “elim”). In later texts, these hosts are often portrayed as comprising different orders of beings, different ranks, etc. “Angel” (Greek “angelos”, Hebrew “malach” = “messenger”) originates as one of the functions of some of these beings, and then the term came to be extended more generally. See, e.g., Michael Mach, Entwicklungsstadien des jüdischen Engelglaubens in vorrabinischer Zeit, Texte und Studien zum Antiken Judentum, no. 34 (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1992) (I can’t think of anything equivalent in English).
      In ancient Jewish/Christian tradition, the crucial factor and expression of distinction between the “one” deity and other heavenly beings was this: You reserve cultic worship for the one deity alone. In “pagan monotheism”, on the other hand, the assertion is that all the gods are valid expressions of a common divine being/essence, and so it is valid to worship them all. I.e., “pagan monotheism” is a kind of “inclusivist” practice, and “ancient Jewish and Christian monotheisms” were very “exclusivist”, rejecting the worship of beings other than the one deity (and, in the case of early Christianity, also Jesus).

  9. I think these are helpful changes in terminology. Do you know what journals will be publishing these articles?

  10. Tony Springer permalink

    Thanks Larry for your definitions. I have heard the word “henotheism” used to describe Jewish and Christian monotheists that still believed in the existence of other gods. What about using this word or does it muddy the waters even more?

    • There are various options offered, “henotheism” being one. But none of them readily fits. E.g., “monolatry” = worshipping only one deity. But the Roman-era Jewish and Christian view wasn’t simply to restrict their own worship to one deity, but to insist that worship of other deities by anyone was idolatry. So, people then resort to such devices as “universalizing monolatry”. I don’t consider myself married to “monotheism” (I think of it more as a relationship of convenience :-). My emphasis is that any expression we use should be informed by the actual data of beliefs and practices of particular traditions.

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