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“Early Christian Monotheism”

April 19, 2013

In a previous posting I described the thrust of my recent Burkitt Lecture in Rice University, and promised a report on my lectures in Houston Baptist University.  I’ll comment here on the first of these:  “Early Christian Monotheism”.

I began by discussing “the Terminology Question”, specifically debates about whether in fact it is misleading to refer to ancient Jewish or Christian “monotheism”.  The problem is that (1) the term is of relatively recent vintage (18th century), and, more seriously, (2) that the standard dictionary definition is belief in the existence of only one God (or, correspondingly, denial of the existence of any other gods).  All our evidence of ancient Jewish tradition is either inconclusive about whether the existence of other deities was denied, or else is pretty clear that their existence wasn’t denied.  Ancient Jews (and Christians) seem to have been more concerned to refuse the worship of other deities, and not so much their existence.

I respond by noting, however, that scholars seem quite ready to refer to “pagan monotheism,” by which they refer to the notion (reflected in some elite writers of the ancient period) that there is one superior deity over all the others, or that all the various deities are manifestations/expressions of one common deity behind them.  This, please note, isn’t “monotheism” (per dictionary definitions), but “pagan monotheism.”  I.e., multiple deities are granted, and (very importantly) all are to be given worship.  But this diversity is presented as cohering somehow in a common divine essence.

So, I continue, if “pagan monotheism” is a valid category (NB, not “monotheism,” but “pagan monotheism”), then I propose that we can also refer to “ancient Jewish monotheism,” by which I mean the notion that there is one deity alone who is properly to be worshipped.  I.e., it’s not the existence of other deities that is particularly denied, but instead the propriety of giving them worship.  Worship-practice is the key expression of this “ancient Jewish monotheism.”  Here, also, this isn’t dictionary “monotheism,” but instead “ancient Jewish monotheism.”

I then describe the remarkable innovation in earliest Christian circles in which Jesus is linked uniquely with God as rightful co-recipient of cultic devotion, proposing that we can call this “early Christian monotheism.”  Once again, not the dictionary-version of “monotheism,” i.e., not focused on denying the existence of other divine beings, but instead comprising a strong, exclusive worship-practice:  In this case, only one God and one Lord (designated by the one God) as rightful recipients of worship.  This produces the distinctive “dyadic devotional pattern” that I have underscored a number of times.

I note also that the “discourse” about God reflected in the NT has a “triadic shape,” with ample references to “God”, “Jesus (the Lord),” and “the Holy Spirit”.  But the worship-practice has a clear “dyadic shape,” focused on God and Jesus.

I concluded the lecture with a couple of illustrations of how this “early Christian monotheism” had corollaries in other matters.  For example, Paul can use his commitment to “one God” as a basis for his view of salvation as being “one-size-for-all,” both Jews and gentiles saved by the one God through the one provision, Jesus.

In Revelation, we have another type of corollary.  Here, the strong, exclusivist stance on worship means that the author treats the divine claims of the Roman imperial regime as unwarranted and even blasphemous.  Although the author condemns the economic and political typranny of the Roman regime, his reason for this is actually his “early Christian monotheism,” i.e., a profoundly theological/religious basis for his stance.

In short, in the ancient world it is difficult to find clear expressions of “monotheism” as defined in the modern dictionaries; but we do have noteworthy religious stances, each of which uses “one god” language, but each of which is incommensurate with the others.  There is “pagan monotheism” (as described above, essentially a philosophical outlook on the pluraity of Roman-era deities), “ancient Jewish monotheism” (essentially, an exclusivist worship-stance), and “early Christian monotheism” (a distinctively “dyadic” worship-practice expressing both an exclusivity inherited from the ancient Jewish religious matrix, and also the remarkable enfranchement of Jesus as rightful co-recipient of worship).

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  1. Dr. Hurtado,
    I wonder if the belief in Angels/Demons would constitute a “deity?” If this is the case, then even modern Christians, Jews and Muslims would not fall into the modern definition of strict Monotheism. Of course the Gnostic ascetics would have given Angels nearly divine qualities of creative power. Like you mentioned above, the focus was giving “worship” only to the one God and not belief in other divine beings, thus Paul warns the Colossians about certain ascetics who “worship angels” (2:18). Paul also instructs that Christians do not struggle “against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).
    Thank you for the interesting post, I have never thought of monotheism in such strict terms as the modern definition.

    • Timothy: “Angels” = “messengers”, reflecting a functional subordination of the mass of heavenly beings to the one deity of the biblical texts. These beings can also be referred to as “sons of God [beney ha-Elohim]” (e.g., Job 1:6), which similarly subordinates them to “Elohim”. The point in the ancient Jewish and Christian texts wasn’t a philosophical one about how many heavenly beings there were, but instead about whether any of them beside YHWH was worthy of worship.

  2. John Moles permalink

    A version of ‘pagan monotheism’ you don’t seem to consider is the worship of the ‘Hypsistos’, which, if Stephen Mitchell is right (I think he is, although admittedly his views have caused immense controversy among Classical scholars of pagan religion) wasn’t primarily an ‘elite’ phenomenon and wasn’t a fancy way of ‘monotheising’ a plurality of gods and offered a certain at least theoretical commonality with Judaism and Christianity.


    • John: I’ve followed the debate about Mitchell’s proposal and am not as impressed as you may be with it. In any case, it doesn’t seem to have focused on restricting worship to the one “Most high” god to my knowledge. Instead, “hypsistos” (“most high”) seems to have been a title used for various deities, including the biblical one.

  3. Robert permalink

    I would think that henotheism is much more in line with ‘Jewish monotheism’ than ‘pagan monotheism’. Is there a difference between henotheism and ‘Jewish monotheism’?

    By the way, I really enjoy your blog, Professor Hurtado.

    • Robert: We’d need to examine actual examples of what you mean. I suspect deeply abstract definitions. “Ancient Jewish monotheism” (as I define it) is a specific instance involving exclusive worship of the one deity (YHWH), condemning as invalid the worship of any other. I don’t know of any comparable stance in the Roman period, until the Christians come along.

  4. Bogdan permalink

    Thank you Professor Hurtado….i find this superbly said: “Ancient Jews (and Christians) seem to have been more concerned to refuse the worship of other deities, and not so much their existence.” Thank you.

  5. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III permalink

    Dear Larry,

    Regarding the issue of “Early Christian Monotheism” and “Ancient Jewish Monotheism.” How does the following quote of Paul fit in this scenario since he was both Jewish and Christian, “So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols. We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and “lords”). yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live, and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. But not everyone knows this. …Do I mean then that a sacrificed offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, bu the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want to to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.” (I Corinthians 8:4-7, 10:19-26).

    It would appear to me that Paul (Isaiah also in Isaiah 45) is making a clear distinction between the pagan/heathen gods (demons) and the God of Israel and Christians.

    • Bryant: Yes, with most devout Jews of his time, Paul makes a clear distinction between the biblical deity and any others, particularly (as clear in the context of the passage you cite) by insisting that any other beings should not receive worship. exactly my point.

      • Rev. Bryant J. Williams III permalink

        Thank you.

        If the Jews and Christians did not worship, hence, denied the existence of other “gods,” but considered them idols = demons. It seems that Psalms 95 says, “that all the ‘gods’ of the nations are idols.” It would seem that Paul is deriving his comments to the Corinthians on this text; also considering Acts 17 and his remarks to the Mars Hill squad. The ancient Hebrews had trouble seeing the difference between the existence of “other gods” so-called and their “actual” or “real” existence. Hence, that other gods = idols = demons. Of course, that was solved with the Babylonian Exile and later history.

      • Bryant: The Jewish refusal to worship other deities didn’t necessarily mean denial of their existence. You’re confusing two things. Reference to other gods as “idols” was a derogatory term, meaning that they were unworthy of worship, wrongly treated as recipients of worship. I don’t know what you mean in your last sentence, unless you mean that in “post-exilic” times Jews became more solidly to affirm a “monotheistic” stance in worship, whereas in earlier times they had often/typically worshipped multiple deities. At least, that’s what the OT prophets complain about, and also in the “Deuteronomistic history” writings.

  6. Jim Deardorff permalink

    Larry: As far as I can determine, “Elim” was not used in the Scriptures, as “gods,” whereas Elohim is so used a couple hundred times.

    • Jim: Yes, “elohim” is used a number of times in the Hebrew Bible where it seems to = “gods”. Of ca. 2600 uses of “elohim”, however, this amounts to at most a couple of hundred instances, or ca. 10% of the total. One particularly interesting text is Psalm 82:1-6, where “Elohim” presides in the “assembly of El” (v. 1), and among “elohim” (which here must = “gods”/divine beings), and then in v. 6 humans are addressed as “elohim” and “beney elyon” (“sons of elyon/most high”). So, yes, a certain flexibility to the word.
      As for “elim” for “gods”, there is Exodus 15:11; Daniel 11:36, and Psalms 29:1 (beney elim), and instances in second-temple texts (e.g., Qumran).
      But my main point was that your proposal failed to deal with the worship-practice factor: The restriction of worship to one deity is the crucial distinguishing feature of “ancient Jewish monotheism”, and we can’t account for that by any linguistic theory of uses/development of “elohim”.

  7. Jim Deardorff permalink

    Isn’t “pagan monotheism” the same as henotheism? Or possibly monolatrism?

    • Jim: Not necessarily. “Henotheism” and “monolatry” refere to worship-practices in which one deity is reverenced particularly from among the many. “Pagan monotheism” typically designates a philosophical view that all the gods are worthy of worship precisely because they are all somehow expressions of a common unifying deity or divine essence.

      • Jim Deardorff permalink

        In that case, Larry, it seems to me that pagan monotheism could be the first step away from worshiping “the gods” or ‘the gods and goddesses” collectively, i.e., Ha Elohim, with the tradition of using “Elohim” having become so customary and frequent over the centuries that after monotheism had pretty well taken hold, the Elohim terminology was retained but merely reinterpreted as the one God. However, I’m aware that this reasoning is not appreciated in some circles, with the preferred interpretation being that a “we” form of El or Eloah was utilized out of magesterial respect.

      • Jim: The plural “gods” in Hebrew is not “Elohim” but “Elim”. “Elohim” was used sometimes for the pantheon of deities, but overwhelmingly as a curious form reserved as a way of designating the biblical deity. More importantly, “pagan monotheism” had no relevance or effect upon the worship practices of those espousing it. It actually functioned to give coherence in their minds to the worship of the many deities of the pantheon. Your theory rests on misunderstanding.

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