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“Monotheism” in/and Ancient Roman Religion: The Continuing Discussion

January 15, 2013

Having just tried to do a last-minute updating of my essay, “How Do We Recognize ‘Ancient Jewish Monotheism’ in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods?,” scheduled to appear in the next issue of Journal of Ancient Judaism, I want to mention a recent multi-author volume with some high-quality contributions on a number of matters relating to religious change/developments in the Roman period:  One God:  Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Period, eds. Stephen Mitchell & Peter Van Neffelen (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2010).

The volume arose from a project led by Mitchell and funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council on “the intellectual background to pagan monotheism”.   In addition to a fine Introduction by the editors, the other contributions are by Peter Van Nuffelen (“Pagan Monotheism as a Religious Phenomenon”), John North (“Pagan Ritual and Monotheism”), Michael Frede (“The Case for Pagan Monotheism in Greek and Graeco-Roman Antiquity”), Alfons Furst (“Monotheism Between Cult and Politics:  The Themes of the Ancient Debate between Pagan and Christian Monotheism”), Christoph Markschies (“The Price of Monotheism:  Some New Observations on a Current Debate about Late Antiquity”), Angelos Chaniotis (“Megatheism:  The Search for the Almighty God and the competition of Cults”), Nicole Belayche (“Deus deum . . . summorum maximus [Apuleius]:  Ritual Expressions of Distinction in the Divine World in the Imperial Period”), and Stephen Mitchell (“Further Thoughts on the Cult of Theos Hypsistos”).

Individually, these are thought-provoking discussions by recognised experts, and collectively this is an important state-of-discussion volume that not only addresses specifically the question of “monotheism” in the Roman period but also wider issues of religious change/development in that time.  I particularly found the Introduction and the essays by Van Nuffelen and North stimulating.  I give a few tidbits below.

From the “Introduction” (p. 14):  “Only when Christianity became the dominant system in the fourth century did pagans begin to develop new ideas about their god (or gods), and thus became, in a much stricter sense, rivals to Christians.  It is only then that pagan monotheism can be identified as a distinctive religious movement.”    Or how about this:  “The Roman Empire was the most fertile period of religious innovation in antiquity, perhaps even in any period of history” (pp. 14-15).

From Van Nuffelen’s essay:  “It is hard to find undisputable documentary evidence of pagan monotheistic cults in the Roman Empire.” (p. 24).  And on p. 26, this warning about deriving a wrong impression from pagan philosophical speculations about the gods, “that a discussion of philosophical concepts tells us something about wider religious life, whereas in reality it may only reflect the speculations of a very restricted group of the upper class.”

From North’s essay, on assertions that beliefs didn’t feature in ancient pagan religion: “It makes no sense, in my view, to say that the ancients did not believe in their own gods; but, having accepted that they did, we still have to face the issue of how we are to discuss and analyse the concept of ‘beliefs’ in a context so different from those with which we are familiar today.” (p. 35)  And in response to claims of some sort of “inevitable” drift toward monotheism in ancient societies as they became more complex, the problem is “that both the idea of monotheism and the increasing complexity of societies had been in existence for many centuries in the Mediterranean areas and in the Near and Middle East without having the effects the theory proposes. It is not at all obvious that the fourth century AD is qualitatively different in social or political organisation from many centuries that preceded it, during which polytheism and its rituals had been maintained unproblematically in a huge range of societies of very different types, many of great complexity.” (p. 49)

One final comment from North: “There does, however, seem to be one crucial new element, introduced by the proponents of the new religions. They seem by the third century AD to be putting forward statements expressing the relations between men and deities in verbal propositions. It seems extraordinarily difficult to do this in the context of the type of paganism that we have been discussing. It is not just that Christians quite soon produce a creed, where the pagans never had one; but that it is very difficult to imagine what a pagan creed could ever have been.” (p. 49).

For students of early Christianity, this volume richly repays the reading of it.

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  1. For many centuries it has been thought that the sole and unique key to the acclaimed superiority of Christianity, was its monotheism. But there are signs of something like it, before.

    1) Someone once noted that though Greek culture overall was polytheistic, often in actual practice a given individual was devoted to one god or cult, in particular.

    No doubt speaking in favor of one god, and denigrating others, would have caused problems to be sure.

    2) Though by 350 BC, Plato’s Heraclitus of course, lionized the “One.” Which would have laid the groundwork for a sort of inclusive monotheism. For a kind of monotheisim that one sees in Judaism and Christianity in the Bible; many gods, but “One” over them all. For what would become the “Lord of Lords.” Demanding that we have “no other gods before him.” (Which acknowledges other gods?).

    3) Possibly another major origin of monotheism would stem from the fact that everyday kings or Lords were often thought of as gods by their subjects. And no doubt many such lords demanded obedience exclusively to themselves, over and above rival kingdoms and lords.

    Out of all that, we finally get a “Lord god.” A “Lord of Lords.” Demanding that your follow “no other gods before “or above him.

    As in the Ten Commandments.

    • Brettongarcia: Your comments are not informed by the latest scholarship on what is called now “pagan monotheism”, or on major studies of religious change and development in the ancient world. The philosophical musings of Greek philosophers had no effect (or intended effect) on the worship practices of the common people (or even the practices of the philosophers themselves). Worship of multiple deities continued and was encouraged. No sign of slacking there in “pagan” cultures of the ancient world.
      As I’ve argued before, and re-state in the article forthcoming in Journal of Ancient Judaism, the stance of 2nd temple Jewish tradition was quite different, both in thought and, even more, in practice. Whereas philosophical traditions tended to make all the gods expressions of one sublime divine essense or deity, or junior deities of one high deity, Jewish tradition distinguished the one biblical deity as in a category of one, and other heavenly beings typically as his creation and servants. More seriously, Jewish cultic practice reserved cultus solely for the one deity, and regarded cultus for any other being as “idolatry”.
      There is no clear causation of the Jewish religious stance in Greek philosophical tradition or any other direct influence. See, e.g., Mark S. Smith, God in Translation: Cross-Cultural Recognition of Deities in the Biblical World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).

  2. Dr. Hurtado,

    I would like to thank you for the always-informative, highly scholarly work you produce. I enjoy this blog very much, and am looking forward to reading your postings.

    One question I have, there seemed to be some significance to Christ finally acknowledging that he was the S/son of God to the high priest, GMark 14.62 (See Bock on this section). The doctrines expressed in GJohn would have likely represented what he had been teaching as he traveled around teaching during the first century, similarly to Paul. Was their a group of Christians, a sizeable group perhaps, that understood Christ to be God, the second person of the trinity?


    • Brett: Please don’t take offence, but your question reflects what scholars would regard as a somewhat naive view of the Gospels, especially the GJohn. Most of us see GJohn as presenting an account of Jesus that is particularly overtly shaped by “post-Easter” views of Jesus’ significance and person, and this includes the statements put in Jesus’ mouth by the author. (See, for example, my essay, “Remembrance and Revelation”, the publication version posted on this site under “Selected Published Essays”.) It appears that Jesus did generate controversy about himself, obviously reflected in his being executed! But it also appears that it was only after his execution and the experience of his resurrection that his followers came to view him as participating in some way in exceptional divine glory and as rightful recipient of cultic devotion. References to “persons” of the “Godhead” don’t appear till later still, earliest examples ca. 200 CE.

  3. Robert Brenchley permalink

    I don’t know about monotheism, but there seems to be a shift in Roman religion towards the end of the Third Century. The empire nearly collapsed mid-century, and split into three at one point, before eventually coming together again. At that point, the coinage changes. Gallienus, in mid-century, issued coins appealing to every god in sight; Claudius Gothicus wasn’t very different. By the time you get to the Tetrarchy, coin types are much more restricted, with emperors starting to identift with specific gods. So Constantine I, for instance, struck coins by the million hailing Sol Invictus as his ‘companion’, and ignored othe gods. Coins struck in his name with the image of, say, Jupiter were minted by his co-emperors.

    • Yes, there were developments, including some things that are labelled “pagan monotheism” by some scholars. But this is quite distinguishable from what I propose that we call “ancient Jewish monotheism” (and also from “early Christian monotheism”), which most explicitly is exhibited in a cultic exclusivity, one speicific deity worshipped only, and all other deities regarded as unworthy of worship. The “pagan” versions of “monotheism” tend, by contrast, to focus on intellectual matters (essentially, thinking of all the gods as really expressions of one divinity), and tend not to have much effect on the cultic behaviour of people: i.e., they go on offering worship to the many deities. Even the Sol Invictus emphasis seems to have been simply prioritizing one deity as the “ueber-deity” over all the rest, not a truly exclusivist cultic practice.

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