Forthcoming Article: “Ancient Jewish Monotheism”
I spent part of my time yesterday going through the proofs of my article, “‘Ancient Jewish Monotheism’ in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods,” forthcoming in Journal of Ancient Judaism. The article originated in an invited presentation to the “Unity and Diversity in Early Jewish Monotheisms Consultation,” at the SBL Annual Meeting in 2010 in Atlanta, and has been revised significantly for publication. The article will appear in JAJ 4 (2013): 379-400. (The journal is a bit behind in its publishing schedule, so the 2013 issue appears soon in 2014.)
I attempt two things in the article: First, I engage the terminological issue of whether and/or how “monotheism” can be a suitable term for ancient Jewish religious tradition. As the typical dictionary meaning of the term = belief that only one god exists, “monotheism” obviously is problematic. It’s hard to find ancient Jews (or Christians) who denied the existence of all other divine beings. Instead, for them the issue was the validity of worshipping any deity other than the one deity of the biblical tradition.
But it is clear that Roman-era Jewish religion was noted for its exclusivity of worship, and the view often expressed that the worship of any other deity by Jews or other people was idolatry. So, I propose that we use the label “ancient Jewish monotheism” to describe this stance. NB: This isn’t dictionary “monotheism,” but “ancient Jewish monotheism,” which focused, not on the existence of other beings, but instead on the exclusive validity of the biblical deity as rightful recipient of worship.
The second object of my article is to lay out the evidence that ancient Jewish religion typically took such a stance. I propose that the most obvious indicator is the Jerusalem temple. No other deity referred to there. Unlike many pagan temples, no images of other deities. There are other data that confirm this exclusivity, both affirmations and descriptions of worship-practice by Jews and references to Jewish practice by non-Jews.
One other matter is the chronological factor. It appears that this firm exclusivity hardened and became more characteristic in the late Hellenistic and Roman periods. I propose that a major factor was the radical attempt by Antiochus IV (“Epiphanes”) to assimilate Jews religiously and culturally, which led initially to the Maccabean revolt. My proposal (not really uniquely mine) is that this crisis thereafter led to a hardened concern by Jews to protect their religious identity and particularity, worship (“cultus”) being the “red line” issue above all.
I’ve addressed this topic in several earlier publications as well:
- One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988).
- “First-Century Jewish Monotheism,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 71 (1998): 3-26, republished in my book, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God? pp. 111-33.
- “Monotheism,” in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism, ed. John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 961-64.
- “Monotheism, Principal Angels, and the Background of Christology,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Dead Sea Scrolls, ed. Timothy H. Lim and John J. Collins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 546-64.