Tag Archives: Monolatry

Monotheism and the Bible: An Interview with Nathan MacDonald

A friend of mine named David Burnett has a new blog up entitled The Time Has Been Shortened. His most recent post is an interview with Nathan MacDonald about monotheism. It provides a good overview of the issues and challenges associated with discussing monotheism in the Bible. Check it out here.

Responding to James White (Part 4)

I had assumed that White was finished with his third post, but I was mistaken. He had posted a fourth response to my comments. After reading over it carefully a number of times, I don’t feel there is much that I could say about his argument that hasn’t already been said. White is appealing to the same fallacies to which he appealed in earlier posts. I do have a couple things to point out, though.

In this fourth post, White argues that I am wrong when I say that “Mormonism claims to be Christian just like James claims to be Christian.” He evidently interprets this to mean “Mormonism claims to be Christian in the exact same manner that, and based on the exact same perspective from which, James claims to be Christian.” From their he dives into Mormonism’s claim to be the only church with God’s authority, and thus the only true church of Jesus Christ. He distinguishes this from his own claim to be Christian and insists that Mormonism is too audacious in their claim to be then allowed to turn around and identify generally with the Christian faith. Of course, my comment had nothing to do with the nature of our separate claims to be Christian. It only had to do with the simple fact that we each claim to be Christian.

Another statement White makes, however, problematizes his earlier rhetoric. In showing that he does not have the unmitigated gall to claim to be the only church with God’s authority he states,

I recognize the reality of God’s Spirit working in men and women who disagree with me on the non-essentials, and see a world-wide body of believers, the elect of God, united by a common confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and the Scriptures are sufficient for life and godliness.

Here the fundamental definition of Christianity appears to be the “common confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and the Scriptures are sufficient for life and godliness.” Why was this not put forth as the fundamental definition of Christianity in earlier posts? He repeatedly stated that Christianity is fundamentally defined by its doctrine of God. Others have even commented to me that it is odd that White fundamentally defines Christianity without ever talking about Christ. I have argued that his definitions are begging the question and are trying to construct an artificial definition of Christianity that can help him to draw Mormonism outside the circle. I have argued he isn’t really addressing true defining issues. I think White’s slip-up above shows that my assessment has been perfectly accurate. When the rhetoric is over and it comes time for White to define Christianity for those we don’t want to a priori exclude from Christianity, White’s definition actually overlaps quite a bit with Mormonism. I don’t know any Mormon who would disagree with the first two confessions. Of course, White’s definition, asserting sola scriptura as it does in its third confession, is more an Evangelical set of confessions than a simple universally Christian set of confessions. He’s intentionally excluding Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, but since that last confession is so ingrained in his own tradition’s fundamental identity, it’s to be expected.

I would conclude that White here has come full circle and finally proven that the fundamental criticism I provided in my original critique of his video was exactly on target. I would reiterate it:

What James is arguing throughout his video is that Mormonism is not Evangelicalism. This hardly needs a 14 minute video to point out, though. The implication, however, is that because it is not Evangelicalism, it is not Christian.

Monotheism – Still a Misused Word in Jewish Studies?

I recently finished a paper for a conference up in Canada and thought I would share it. It’s a response to Peter Hayman’s 1991 Journal of Jewish Studies article, “Monotheism—A Misused Word in Jewish Studies?” You can find my paper here. I appreciate any comments.

CSBS Paper Submission

CSBS, the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies, is holding their annual meeting at the University of New Brunswick on May 29–31. I’m submitting to the general programme, which requires a 100 word paper proposal. Here’s what I managed to shrink down to around 100 words:

Monotheism—Still a Misused Word in Jewish Studies?

This paper will take up Peter Hayman’s 1991 Journal of Jewish Studies discussion of “monotheism” as an inadequate descriptor for ancient Jewish belief regarding deity. It will align with Hayman’s argument against the applicability of the term from an etymological point of view, but will depart from Hayman in suggesting that “monotheism,” which developed as a descriptive term, can still adequately describe formative Judaism. It will show that “monotheism” comprises a specific view of the nature and function of other divine beings in relation to Yhwh, and will describe this view and its development within formative Judaism.

Hayman’s paper, which I highly recommend, is briefly described here.

Richard Hess on Monotheism

Richard Hess has an interesting post up on Bible and Interpretation on monotheism in the pre-exilic period. The title of the post is “Did Anyone Believe in One God before the Greeks?” although Hess states in the second paragraph that he is not discussing philosophical monotheism, “such as emerged in the world of Classical Greece,” but the practice of worshipping only one deity. I felt a little duped by the title of his paper, since it was explicitly about belief in one deity and the relationship to the Greeks, but the paper is thought provoking nonetheless.

Hess’ thesis is basically that monotheism should be understood as the worship of a single deity to the exclusion of all others. In that sense, Egypt was monotheistic during the Amarna period, and Israel was monotheistic from the reforms of Josiah and afterward. Simple enough. Interestingly, both Tom Thompson and Niels Peter Lemche come to Hess’ defense in the comments (note also Philip Davies’ and T. S. Verenna’s comments).

I take issue with Hess on a few grounds. First, what, specifically, comprises worship? Sacrifice? Prayer? Any kind of gesture or address? I think this is a crucial issue, but it’s glossed over (granted, it’s a blog post and not a monograph). Moving past that, I cannot agree with his argument about pillared figurines. If pillared figurines are not representative of Asherah, but are votive offerings to a deity, which deity is it? Are we simply to assume it is Yhwh? Does “votive offering” comprise cultic worship? Second, the fact that they are cheap and mass produced hardly indicates they are not intended to represent deities. Poor people wanted images of deities, too, and worship was not the sole purview of the state. Third, what of Anat-Yahu? What of prayers offered to saints? What of the reverence of angels in the Greco-Roman period? What of James Spinti’s mug? (ZING!) I don’t think those issues are aberrant enough to just be dismissed.

Hess states in his article, “The textual evidence from outside the Bible provides a uniform witness that only Yahweh was officially worshiped in Judah and its capital.” I find the notion that the state’s “official” worship is alone determinative for this question quite problematic. John Barton and Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s recent volume, Religious Diversity in Ancient Israel and Judah, did an excellent job of breaking down the false dichotomy of “official” vs. “popular” religion. Even within that dichotomy, though, shouldn’t “popular religion” have a say in what a nation collectively believes? If the question is just one of any significant segment of the Israelite demographic adhering to the worship of only one deity, then certainly it goes back further than Josiah.

Next, I am not convinced that monotheism is best defined in terms of worship. The term “monotheism” was coined in reference to belief in a single deity (specifically, as opposed to atheism). Scholarship has been trying for years to nail down a useful way to apply this term to ancient Judaism, but as Peter Hayman’s 1991 JJS article has shown, that attempt has largely failed. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have manifested belief in numerous divine beings since their inception and down to this very day. The notion that monotheism should be viewed as exclusively expressed through worship rather than belief is, in my opinion, an attempt to skirt that fact. In saying this I’m not arguing that monotheism is inapplicable to Judaism and Christianity. I believe it can be applied to ancient Judaism, but I think one shouldn’t be looking only at worship to identify the genesis of a phenomenon that is rather universally understood as a belief first and a practice second (and to mark a distinction between “monotheism” as a practice and “philosophical monotheism” as a belief is to classify the latter as conceptually subordinate).

Lastly, if monotheism finds its genesis in the exclusion of other deities from worship, what shall we call the development of the notion that God is, in a significant sense, the only god that exists? This notion did in very fact develop, just ask any Christian or Jew on the street what monotheism means. What happens if you point out that other entities are called “gods” in the Hebrew Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls? “Those are just angels,” or some variation will likely be the response. “They’re only contingent/created/subordinate beings.” See a similar comment from Deuteronomy Rabbah which responds to the fact that angels are called “gods” in the text: “‘Do not go astray after one of these angels who came down with me; they are all my servants. I am the Lord, your God.” See James Spinti’s comment on the matter:

I believe in the gods (and goddesses). Yes, all of them, Ba`al, ‘El, Zeus, Jupiter, Apollo, etc. OK, you can get up off the floor now and let me finish. I believe that they are divine beings, but that they are created ones, under the thumb, so to speak, of YHWH. I suspect I am in the minority in the Western world, bordering on insane, but in the 2/3 world, I would be considered sane and reasonable.

In a recent paper I tried to show that this identification of the gods with angels occurred at a specific point in time, and accomplished a sort of ontological distinction between “the One God” and another group of “gods” to a sufficient degree that subsequent Jews and Christians were (and remain) perfectly happy to insist that only one God exists.

In my opinion, and I welcome comments, this development is far more intimately linked with the common ancient or modern Christian or Jew’s notion of monotheism than the worship of a single deity without necessarily denying the existence of other deities. I think the latter is an important step in the development of monotheism that deserves attention, but since the word “monotheism” was intended to describe a belief, and is most commonly used to describe a belief, I think it more useful to allow it to apply to a significant development in belief, not in religious practice.

“Worship Him, All You Gods”

Following is the proposal I just submitted for the upcoming annual meeting of the SBL. Feel free to share any thoughts, criticisms, chistes, or chismes:

“Worship Him, All You Gods”: The Role of the Gods in the Development of Jewish Monotheism

The meaning of monotheism and its development remains one of the most important areas of inquiry in the study of the theology of the Hebrew Bible. Most scholars today find the first explicit manifestations of strict monotheism in the rhetoric of Isaiah 40–55. According to this consensus, Deutero-Isaiah explicitly denies the existence of other deities, which constitutes the most common definition of monotheism. However, the existence and value of multiple divine beings remains affirmed in numerous biblical and extra-biblical texts. Postexilic Judaism found no significant theological conflict between those texts and the rhetoric of Deutero-Isaiah. In addition, that rhetoric is best understood as a rejection of potency, not of ontological existence. A proper definition of biblical monotheism must account for the recognition of other deities.

This paper proposes the threshold of monotheism is found not at the rejection of the existence of other deities, but at the conflation of the gods with a theologically harmless classification of divine being, the angels of God. The clearest example of this conflation is found in LXX Deut 32:43, where the original “worship him all you gods” (4QDeutq: השתחוו לו כל אלהים) is expanded to two cola which place the sons of God (υἱοὶ θεοῦ) parallel to the angels of God (ἄγγελοι θεοῦ). This text manifests an attempt, either on the part of the translator or his Vorlage, to accommodate Judaism’s scriptural heritage to a theology which was comfortable with the existence of other deities, provided they were confined to a distinct taxonomy that existed only to obediently serve Israel’s God. The early Hellenistic period, not the Babylonian exile, thus marks the transition from the monolatry of the Hebrew Bible to the monotheism of early Judaism.

UPDATE: Duane has pointed to some abnormal parallels in Deut 32:43a to Akkadian formulas of praise.


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