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Words, Actions and Meanings

December 16, 2011

In discussions after my lectures in Chicago and Waco (in which I focused on the place of Jesus in earliest Christian prayer), I tried to clarify why I have placed emphasis over many years on the importance of early Christian devotional practice.  I have done so both because devotional practice is a core component in any religious group, and so crucial for any historical understanding of the group, and also because often devotional practice can help us understand what the religious discourse/rhetoric of the group actually means.  In the course of making these points, I used the following illustration, which may help others to get my point.

Two married men, each one says “I love my wife.”  One also admits that he does occasionally have sex with other women, but insists “I do love my wife.”  The other does not have sex with other women, declaring “I love my wife.”  Both men say the same thing, and each man means what he says.  But from their actions we know that they mean very different things, though what they say is the same.

So, as Erik Peterson showed many decades ago, all kinds of people in the ancient world used “one/only god” language:  Eis Theos: Epigraphische, formgeschichtliche und religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen, FRLANT N.F., no. 24 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1926).  But from the devotional practices of various groups/people, we learn what this language actually meant, and it clearly meant very different things.

In the case of ancient Jews and Christians, a “one/only god” profession was supposed to mean an exclusivity of cultic worship, and a corresponding refusal to join in worship of “the gods”.  That exclusivity comprised a very distinctive religious stance, indeed generating the charge of “atheism”.  So people of the time clearly perceived this religious standpoint as very different from that of the culture more generally.

The further “wrinkle” in earliest Christian “one/only god” professions was the striking inclusion of Jesus as a distinguishable but uniquely connected second recipient of devotion along with “God”.  That too was noted as curious (e.g., Celsus’ critique of Christianity), and remains utterly remarkable in history, especially given its early emergence and rapid spread in various Christian circles.

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  1. Larry–Thank you for your blog and your examination of the devotional practices of the early church. You challenge me to identify for myself what my devotional practices say about me and my commitment to the Lord that I serve. Thank you for the gentle nudge toward Him.

    • My observations in my publications are mainly of a historical nature, but it is true that such observations can have a positive effect upon practicing Christians today. Sadly (for them), there seems to be so little interest in such matters, or awareness of their stimulating value.

  2. Brett Williams permalink

    I have the following 2 questions…

    1. With reference to monotheism, why do we identify Muslims as monotheists? Would not a better description, in light if their view of Allah, be that they are Unitarians?

    2. Were Jews of the first century Unitarians or Monotheists?

    Thank you,

    Brett Williams

    • Your question presumes that “monotheist/monotheism” has a single and clear definition. It doesn’t, as I’ve shown repeatedly over 20+ years. Again, see, e.g., my essay posted on the “Essays, etc” tab of this site on Principal Angels, Christology and Monotheism, or any of several other publications from my list.
      So, e.g., people refer to “pagan monotheism”, by which they typically refer to the idea (held by some Roman-era elites) that all the gods were valid expressions of one ueber-god (who typically cannot be directly approached or perhaps even really known) or common divine essence of some sort. So, it was valid to worship them all.
      Ancient Jewish “monotheism” was very different. There is only one god valid to worship, and the deity’s identity very specific, and the worship of other deities = “idolatry”. So, I have argued that we have to distinguish different things clearly, and have proposed “Ancient Jewish Monotheism” for what I’ve just described.
      Early Christian devotion to the one God and to “the Lord” Jesus = a novel kind of “monotheism” with a “dyadic” shape to it. But it retains the exlusivity typical of “ancient Jewish monotheism”.
      Classical Islam follows a similar pattern to Judaism, with one deity who alone is worthy of worship.

  3. Matt permalink

    Very interesting post. I am actually very confused over the nature of Jewish views of God in the times of Jesus and before. For example, Did Jews believe that YHWH was the only God that existed or that he is the only one that should be worshiped? If the latter,is that considered Monotheism? Did their views of God change over time? I am just a layman so any help in answering these questions would be greatly appreciated.

    • I’ve written about ancient Jewish and Christian “monotheisms” a number of times. See, e.g., my contribution on “Angels, Monotheism and Christology” for the Oxford Handbook to the Dead Sea Scrolls, the manuscript version posted on the “Essays, etc” page of this blog site. In short, the evidence is mixed. Some suggests a denial of the reality of the gods worshipped by gentiles/pagans, and some suggests a concern simply to deny their validity as objects of worship. In either case, the clearest expression of “ancient Jewish monotheism” was in religious practice: Confining one’s cultic worship to the one deity as the only valid object of worship (for anyone).

  4. Interesting and helpful work, Larry.

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