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Forthcoming Article: “Ancient Jewish Monotheism”

January 22, 2014

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.

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  1. Professor Hurtado,

    Thank you for your reply to my enquiry. Good point. I have been reading James Dunn. His approach seems to be that the Hellenists criticised the Temple, whereas the apostles did not (they continued to pray at the Temple at regular hours).. Even at this stage one could argue there were “differences in approach” within early Christianity though Dunn thinks “schism” is too extreme.

    • Yes, the notion that the “Hellenists” in the Jerusalem church had some particular critique of the Temple is widely shared . . . but in my view based on little evidence. Mainly, it rests on taking the speech of Stephen in Acts as an authentic report of the stance of the “Hellenists” generally (a debatable inference), and then also reading the speech as a critique of the Temple (also a debatable judgement). Acts never states that the Hellenists criticized or rejected the Temple, or that this was the reason for Saul of Tarsus’ actions or the larger persecution that Acts posits after Stephen’s death. It’s all a construct. It’s not obviously impossible, but neither is it obviously compelling.

  2. Sean permalink

    Larry, would you suggest that Christianity emerged within this cultic exclusivisty, with the exception that Jesus figured within their cultic activity as part of their exclusive devotion to YHWH? Could first century Christianity be described as exclusive in a similar manner of ancient Jewish monotheism, with regards to the worship of the emperor or other gods?

    • Sean: Yes, since my 1988 book, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, I’ve emphasized that earliest treatment of Jesus as sharing in divine glory erupted initially in circles of Jewish believers, that this comprises an apparently novel innovation (“mutation”) in typical Jewish devotional practice to include Jesus as a distinguishable figure along with God in worship, and that we see the exclusivity of their Jewish religious context reflected in this: They include Jesus but no other.

      • Professor Hurtado,

        Acts 8
        “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison”

        Why was the church persecuted but not apparently the apostles?

      • Michael, The text doesn’t say that the apostles weren’t subject to persecution, only that they didn’t scatter. The point was to represent them as courageous, not unaffected. In fact, Acts recounts specific actions against apostolic leaders: e.g., 4:1-22; 5:17-42; 12:1-19.
        On the matter of “Hellenists” and “Hebrews” in the Jerusalem church, for my money the best discussion remains: Craig C. Hill, Hellenists and Hebrews: Reappraising Division Within the Earliest Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992)

  3. Mike Bird permalink

    Larry, mate, in you new article do you deal with Paula Fredriksen’s essay in your festschrift?

    • Yes, I engage the terminological issue as raised by Paula among others. For what it’s worth, I ran my basic proposal by her informally at the SBL meeting where I presented the original version of the article, and she seemed to like it. Again: It’s “ancient Jewish monotheism”, not “monotheism”.

  4. James Ernest permalink

    I’m currently reading David Bentley Hart, Experiencing God (not halfway through yet). It’s interesting to read this conversation about ancient monotheism in light of his observations about monotheism and polytheism in the major world religions. He makes a basic distinction between God (that which is being, and grounds the existing of all beings, and so is not another existing thing like other existing things) and gods (powerful beings whose being, if they exist, is nevertheless dependent on something else). He notes that Hindu thought, no less than Christian thought, has such a concept of God. The difference is that Hinduism also has “gods.” Christianity (could just as well say Judaism) doesn’t but has angels, demons, powers, etc.–not all that different from gods. Already in the fourth century you something in this direction with the insistence of Athanasius and others on a basic creator-creation distinction, where God alone is on the creator side and everything else (including the Word of God, if described defectively, as by the “Arians”) is on the other. But I don’t know how much that kind of metaphysical distinction can be found in “ancient Jewish monotheism.”

    • James: As Bauckham emphasized in his comments to this posting, we do have Jewish texts where YHWH is the only creator (e.g., Isaiah 45:12), and this appears to include heavenly beings as well. There are similar claims about El as father of the gods in ancient Canaanite thought too. It was quite common to have one “high god” over the others. See, e.g., M. P. Nilsson, “The High God and the Mediator,” Harvard Theological Review 56 (1963): 101-20; Morton Smith, “The Common Theology of the Ancient Near East,” Journal of Biblical Literature 71 (1952): 135-47.
      The distinctive feature about Roman-era Jewish religion was their cultic exclusivity, their refusal of worship of any being other than YHWH.

      • The trouble with focusing exclusively on cultic worship is that it makes the limitation of worship to YHWH seem arbitrary, as though if you had asked a Jew, “What is there about your God that makes it appropriate to limit worship to him alone?,” the Jew would have no answer. The literature of 2nd Temple Judaism (I’m not speaking of the OT) makes it abundantly clear that there were widely known answers to this question. Jews had beliefs about God and the world, and when these core beliefs are as widely scattered through all the different types of Judaism as our literature evidences it really is inadequate to say simply that some Jewish texts don’t mention these points and so we can’t be sure. These core beliefs (YHWH the only Creator and only sovereign Ruler of all things) are just as widely evidenced as the requirement not to worship other gods and as the evidence that Jews didn’t worship other gods. It makes sense therefore to connect the beliefs with the cultic practice, as some of the texts explicitly do. Is there anything at all about Judaism that is mentioned in every Jewish text from the 2nd Temple period? The book of Esther doesn’t even mention God! It’s quite unrealistic to say that the only beliefs all Jews shared are ones mentioned in every single text. This would not be true of any religious community from which we have a wide range of literature. If a belief is very widely evidenced then, to say not all Jews shared it, we need positive evidence of people denying it or stating something incompatible with it. Polemic in the texts against Jews who differed on these points would also be evidence, but do we have anything like that before the “two powers” in rabbinic literature, by which time Christianity and Gnosticism had appeared on the scene?

      • Richard: You pose two quite distinguishable matters. The one has to do with the exclusivity of cultic practice. Yes, Jewish texts proclaim that YHWH is the sole creator and ultimate sovereign. And, yes, Jewish texts also demand exclusive worhip of YHWH. The tight connection of the two, cultic exclusivity a corollary of the belief in YHWH as creator/sovereign, isn’t as clear to me in Jewish texts as it seems to be to you.
        What would Jews answer if asked about their cultic exclusivity? One answer might well be simply that YHWH commands it, and that other spiritual beings are simply unworthy, imposters who claim worship wrongly.
        Other people believed that there was one creator (e.g., El), but didn’t see this as demanding that El alone be worshipped. So, in the “logic” of the ancient near east, it’s not so clear that the belief warrants cultic exclusivity by itself.
        In any case, both Jewish texts and pagan witnesses agree that Jewish cultic exclusivity was the observable (and to pagans objectionable) feature that distinguished Jewish religion.
        The other matter you raise is the extent to which we can generalize Jewish beliefs on the basis of extant evidence. I actually agree that we can posit some things as pretty widely shared (e.g., the Torah as God’s unique revelation, Israel as special people, YHWH as sole legitimate recipient of worship, etc.). But I simply want also to allow for variation. E.g., apparently, some Jews believed in personal resurrection and others didn’t.

      • Geoff Hudson permalink

        Larry, what about the ‘Essenes’ who had ‘sacrifices’ of their own? These were Jews who obviously didn’t follow the normal cultic practice.

      • Geoff: Exactly who and what the “Essenes” were remains unclear. In any case, there is no indication that they worshipped deities other than the YHWH. That’s the point.

  5. Larry, do you consider in your article the persisting polytheism of the Elephantine Jews in Egypt?

    Also, what would be your judgment regarding the date when the Jerusalem temple stopped being thought of as a place for worshiping various deities besides Yahweh, as was clearly still common practice in Ezekiel’s day and probably for some time afterwards?

    • Daniel: The Elephantine temple was reflective of the period in which it was set up and operated, ca. 6th century BCE, and was destroyed 410 BCE. So, it’s hardly relevant to the developments that I focus on in late Hellenistic and Roman periods.
      There is a distinction accepted now by most scholars who have studied the matter that the “pre-exilic” temple in Jerusalem (and, thus, the official state cult that it represented) was not exclusivist in worship (or at least for much of that period). The OT prophets complain about this, e.g., images of deities in the temple, etc.
      As I propose in the article, the growth of an exclusivist cultic practice seems to have happened/developed sometime in/across the “post-exilic” period. But I contend that the Maccabean crisis likely generated a further hardening of this stance.

      • Larry: thanks for the clarification re the period you are considering.
        As an historian of late antique religion, I so often have to worry that our extant texts are giving us a false impression of reality on the ground. That’s certainly true, for instance, of the influence and spread of Rabbinic Judaism in the 4-7th centuries. Many ‘alternative’ Jewish beliefs were common. To go back to your period, the temple religion of the Hasmonean kings certainly tells us what they wanted Judaism to look like and what sort of religion they enforced. Other studies suggest that there were many other varieties and tendencies amongst Jews, and also that ‘Jew’ wasn’t at all a stable term.
        So while it may be very helpful to have a term such as ‘ancient jewish monotheism’ to describe a certain set of beliefs and practices, this should not be taken to mean that all people who identified themselves as Jews conformed to these beliefs or practices, nor that ‘Judaism’ was in some essential and necessary way ‘monotheistic’

      • Daniel, I don’t want to erect some artificial monolithic view. What purpose could that serve? So, yes, certainly, lots of variegation in 2nd temple Judaism. But I’ve offered a case that those who identified themselves as Jews in the Roman period were widely united in treating cultus to any deity other than the god of the Bible as idolatry. This didn’t prevent some from “negotiating their existence” (esp. in diaspora settings) in various ways, including sending their children to gymnasia (where token expressions of reverence for deities would have featured), etc. But, to repeat, I do contend that there is a substantial body of evidence that Roman-era Jews practiced a cultic exclusivity.

  6. “It’s hard to find ancient Jews (or Christians) who denied the existence of all other divine beings.” It’s true they believed there were other supernatural beings, some of them worshipped as gods by non-Jews. Actually all “monotheists” down to at least the 19th century believed in lots of supernatural beings (angels and demons) and so do the majority of monotheists today. (Some Christians don’t, but I’d be pretty sure all Muslims do.) So are modern liberal Christians the only true “monotheists”?

    It depends, of course, on what “divine” means. For Jews all supernatural beings were created by the one God. Ancient terminology varied and created beings could be called gods. But it is notable that through the Second Temple period in general use in Jewish literature (with some specific exceptions) ‘elohim and theos came to be very largely restricted to the one God. Even in the OT there are passages where the gods of the nations are called ‘no gods.’ But what makes ‘early Jewish monotheism’ a form of monotheism is that only the one God was Creator of all things and supreme Ruler of all things. The restriction of worship to this one God made sense because he was regarded as actually unique in those ways.

    • Richard: Yes, I guess in the terms of the standard dictionary/popular definition, there weren’t many true “monotheists” until ca. 18th century and thereafter. That’s the burden of people such as Paula Fredriksen, et al.
      In my article, I point to the curious readiness to refer to “pagan monotheism”, by which is meant a belief that all the gods are valid, e.g., versions or facets or whatever of a common divine essence behind them. In practice, this meant typically that all the gods, therefore, were worthy of worship. That’s not “dictionary” monotheism either; it’s “pagan monotheism”, and seems a widely accepted scholarly category.
      So, I propose that if we can refer to “pagan monotheism” in this manner, it’s OK to refer to “ancient Jewish monotheism”, expressed most clearly in a cultic exclusivity. I use an analogy of “democracy”. There are several incommensurate types: “Athenian democracy” (all males of military age can vote), “Soviet democracy” (everyone of a given age can vote, but there’s only one party on the ballot), and “modern liberal democracy” (everyone of a given age can vote and there are multiple parties on the ballot).
      Your focus is on the beliefs of ancient Jews of the Roman period (or some of them at least). My own focus is on the outward and most unambiguous expression of “religion” in the ancient world: worship practice.

      • “or some of them at least” – where are the others? I can’t find them in the literature. Of course we can always imagine them, but there’s no evidence that these particular views (YHWH is the only Creator and the only sovereign Ruler of all things) were disputed by any Jews in the 2nd Temple period.

      • Richard: My qualification was simply to avoid claiming more than the extant evidence shows. Sure, I can’t find contradictions by Jews to the claim that YHWH is the creator, and didn’t imply such. But not every Jewish text comments on the matter.

    • Fr Aidan Kimel permalink

      I find this topic fascinating. If I may, I’d like to offer one observation from a non-scholarly non-historian: I find references to “divine beings” confusing within a monotheistic context. From a theological perspective, the fundamental category is uncreated/created. If YHWH, and only YHWH, belongs on the uncreated side of the divide, and everything else, including the “gods,” belongs to the created side, then it’s confusing (if not contradictory) to speak of “divine beings.” Perhaps pagan monotheists could speak this way (with their understanding that the gods are “versions or facets or whatever of a common divine essence behind them”), but would 2nd Temple Jews be truly comfortable thinking of the gods as facets of a common divine essence? God alone is divine, because he alone is uncreated. Am I projecting later theological reflection into the 2nd Temple period?

      Just an observation from from the peanut gallery, which I have also briefly state here:

      Thanks gentlemen for all this great work on a fascinating subject.

      • As someone trying to do historical work, I have to use the language and categories of the people I study. So, e.g., in ancient Jewish texts we do have references to “gods” (Hebrew: “elim”/”elohim”, e.g., Psalm 82, and in later texts, e.g., from Qumran). The term “god” has acquired a technical meaning in usage influenced by christian theology that is much narrower than its ancient meanings. See, e.g., S. R. F. Price, “Gods and Emperors: The Greek Language of the Roman Imperial Cult,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 104 (1984):

  7. Donald Jacobs permalink

    How does the Collins definition exclude “universalising exclusivity” or the view that worship of other gods is idolatry?

    Merriam-Webster online for “henotheism” offers: “the worship of one god without denying the existence of other gods”.

    What better match could you hope for than that?

    What accounts for the reluctance to give up a term so misleading as “monotheism” to describe ancient Jewish belief, other than scholarly conservatism, or dare I say it even apologetic tendencies?

    • Oh get off it, Donald, and get over yourself! You’re missing the key point: “Henotheism” = what one family/tribe regards as its cultic duty. The outlook I deal with is a universalizing claim. So, would you like “universalizing henotheism” or “totalitarian henotheism”? Fine. OK. Why don’t you wait and read my article before you go off acting like you know it all? And drop your stupid claims of “apologetic tendencies”, please! That’s ad hominem, and doesn’t engage the issues. If you can’t do the latter, then buzz off.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        I’m just trying to understand what accounts for intelligent people refusing to give up using a word (monotheism) even when they acknowledge it doesn’t fit the context. 🙂

        At its core henotheism accurately describes the situation where the Jews worshipped one God but did not deny the existence of others.

        Whereas at its core “monotheism” applied to ancient Jewish belief gives the mistaken impression that they denied other gods existed.

        However you further refine your description of ancient Jewish belief, beginning by selecting the wrong word is not the best start is it?

        However I am convinced that Richard Rprty is right that meaning and “truth” are utterly contingent and dependent on common use and indeed usefulness in given contexts. In that regard I must admit there appears to be continuing solidarity among many scholars who persist on using the word “monotheism” incorrectly in relation to ancient Jewish belief. But the discourse can change. The question often is the answer, I’m just saying.

      • For the third (and final!) time: “Henotheism” doesn’t solve the problem any more than does “monotheism”. Henotheism simply means that a given tribe chooses a given deity. The ancient Jewish stance was that all peoples should rightly worship only the one deity. That’s NOT henotheism. Period.
        If you bother to read things carefully (including my posting), you’ll see that I DON’T use “monotheism” but I propose “ancient Jewish monotheism”, and define it quite specifically, distinguishing it from “monotheism” (as typically defined).
        But, as I say in the forthcoming article, I’m not married to “ancient Jewish monotheism” as a label; I consider it more a relationship of convenience! Since no other term accurately suffices (again, including “henotheism”), my proposal is simply a working arrangement.
        But the main substance of the article (and my posting) isn’t this terminological “tempest in a teacup”; it’s the substantial matter of how Jewish religious exclusivity was expressed particularly in worship.
        OK. I think we’re done now.

    • adrift98 permalink

      Again with the conservative apologist boogie man talk, Donald? Can we go more than a couple threads without you obsessing about this?

  8. Geoff Hudson permalink

    Larry, I don’t believe that the Maccabean revolt was about what is otherwise generally believed. It was about a war between those Jews who wanted to preserve the sacrificial cult (including Antiochus), and those Jews who thought that sacrifice was unnecessary which included Judas the Maccabean.

    • Geoff: As with other things, your “belief” isn’t (1) based on any evidence, and so (2) isn’t shared by scholars who’ve worked on the matter.

  9. Donald Jacobs permalink

    What’s wrong with the word henotheism? Why use the wrong term (monotheism) while trying to adapt it’s meaning when the right term already exists for the concept of exclusive worship of one God without denying the existence of other gods? (henotheism)

    • “Henotheism” = “the worship of one deity as the special god of one’s family, clan or tribe” (per the Collins English Dictionary). It doesn’t fit the universalizing exclusivity of ancient Jewish tradition. Ancient Jews typically regarded the worship of other deities by other peoples as idolatry, forbidden, the chief sin of gentiles (see, e.g., Wisdom of Solomon 13). So, their worship of one deity wasn’t simply a “tribal” matter, but was what ought to be done by all peoples. So, “henotheism” doesn’t solve the problem.

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