Brian LePort has kindly posted my review of Bart Ehrman’s new book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee at Near Emmaus. Check it out and let me know what you think here or there.
Tag Archives: Monotheism
I’m reading back through a number of sources that have been cited and have been conspicuously not cited by both sides of the current Ehrman/Bird-Evans-Gathercole-Hill-Tilling debate, and I’ve been impressed (again) by some comments made by Paula Fredriksen about the treatment of the notion of monotheism by the Early High Christology Club that bear sharing:
Big books and long articles have appeared analyzing the sudden and early development of high christological claims by imputing an austere and exclusive monotheism to late Second Temple Judaism.28 Jews are distinguished from pagan contemporaries on the basis of their cultic exclusivism, a consequence of this monotheism. The persecution of Gentile Christians, in turn, is explained as the result of their commitment, inherited from Judaism, to this sort of monotheism. Meanwhile, the higher the christological claims, the more ingenious the various and scholarly reassurances that these claims do not, in fact, compromise monotheism.
All this raises the question, What do we mean by “monotheism”? In the modern context of its origin, the word denotes belief in a single god who is the only god. When modern scholars transpose the term to antiquity, the definition remains constant. And that is a large part of the problem.
Ancient monotheism spoke to the imagined architecture of the cosmos, not to its absolute population. Ancient monotheism means “one god on top,” with other gods ranged beneath, lower than, and in some sense subordinate to the high god. People of sufficient education who thought philosophically about relations between levels of divinity might see these lower gods as ontologically contingent on the high god; less philosophical monotheists were content simply to assert that their own god was the biggest, the most powerful, or the best god.
Fredriksen, “Mandatory Retirement: Ideas in the Study of Christian Origins Whose Time Has Come to Go,” in Israel’s God and Rebecca’s Children (D. B. Capes, et al., eds.; Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007), 35.
Y’see, in his discussion of early christology, Ehrman explicitly adopts the idea of the divine/human relationship as a continuum, or spectrum (helped along by Peppard, whom I address here), over and against the contemporary notion of a strict and clear divine/human dichotomy that is so often the conceptual linchpin that makes the detection of an early high christology possible (for Bauckham most critically). For proponents of the latter conceptualization, first century Judaism is staunchly and consciously monotheistic because of this dichotomous relationship of God to “all other reality,” but the philosophical lexicon and lenses that make such a view possible are generally just assumed, without argument, to have been issued to every Jewish person of the first century of the Common Era. The reality of the ancient world is much more complicated than that, as Fredriksen points out above (and more forcefully in her review of Hurtado’s Lord Jesus Christ). Building on the work of Gradel, Fredriksen, and others, Peppard and now Ehrman highlight this concern, but I have yet to see a single reference to those precedents in the essays on monotheism from Bird’s response, much less a cogent challenge to their arguments. There is still more left for me to read, though. Individual reviews and thoughts on the overall debate will be forthcoming.
While writing my thesis on biblical conceptualizations of deity in cognitive perspective, a very helpful article was Beate Pongratz-Leisten‘s article from Reconsidering Revolutionary Monotheism (her introduction to the volume is here), entitled “Divine Agency and Astralization of Gods in Ancient Mesopotamia.” I believe her discussion of divine agency, which incorporates some insights from cognitive theory, is particularly relevant to biblical notions of deity and to christology (you’ll notice if you’ve read Peppard’s look at the christology of Mark that they develop some of the same approaches to the notion of the divine). I highlight this paper now because Pongratz-Leisten has made a draft of her article available on academia.edu. If you’re interested in the topic, you should definitely give it a read.
Larry Hurtado has some comments up about Darina Staudt’s 2012 Der eine und einzige Gott: Monotheistische Formeln im Urchristentum und ihre Vorgeschichte bei Griechen und Juden. Here’s a snippet:
This is a survey-analysis of the use of several “forms” (fixed expressions) used in ancient texts that figure in discourse about gods: εἷς θεός (“one god”), μόνος θεός (“only god”), and οὐκ ἔστιν ἔτι πλήν (“there is no other”). The main purpose of her study is to trace the background and possible influences upon the way in which “monotheistic” language is used in early Christian sources, and also how the risen/exalted Jesus is so readily incorporated into what we may call “God-discourse”.
Looks like an important contribution to understanding how early Jews and Christians conceived of God. I look forward to getting a hold of it.
I am doing some interesting research on the way religious ideas, and specifically concepts of deity, developed in antiquity. One of the most fascinating things I’ve come across is the notion within cognitive science that certain perspectives on deity derive directly from universal patterns in human cognition. This is not to say that religion is indigenous to our minds, but that basic cognitive functions lend themselves consistently to particular conceptualizations of divinity. For instance, humans tend to interpret the ambiguous and the unknown in nature and society in terms of what is most important and influential to them, namely other humans. We are more likely to ascribe unknown events or entities to living agents—usually human—than to non-living phenomena.
For this reason, God and the gods are most naturally conceived of as anthropomorphic. They are also usually understood in terms of the cultural institutions and figures most ideal or central to a group: shepherds, kings, warriors, fathers, etc. As humans are social creatures, so too are deities. All deities have some manner of relationship with humanity. None operate completely independently, completely detached from humanity.
These are the intuitive and reflexive conceptualizations of the divine. Studies have shown that the brain is drawn to such ideas about deity, irrespective of theological orientation. For instance, Barrett and Keil (“Conceptualizing a Nonnatural Entity: Anthropomorphism in God Concepts,” Cognitive Psychology 31 : 219–47) conducted several studies that involved testing the recall of details about short stories that the participants read about deities. Through a variety of variables and controls, the authors were able to conclude that when deprived of the luxury of theological reflection, the human brain is drawn to anthropomorphic and anthropopathic concepts of deity. Even for people well acquainted with Christian orthodoxy, the mind substitutes those ideas where it is more cognitively efficient.
But religious traditions often have the luxury of time and reflection, which facilitates the development of more complex and intricate conceptualizations of the divine. There is still a cognitive predisposition to the more intuitive concepts, however. This leads to different kinds of theological incongruities. In the course of the study, one participant commented:
When I pray? Well, I normally, I just think about like . . . a human bring, like a typical human being, long hair and the beard, and I think of on a cloud up in Heaven, and just, like, listening. I just kind of always picture God as like an old man, you know, white hair . . . kind of old, I mean, but I know that’s not true.
As another example, a scholar mentions a close Calvinist friend who is a theological determinist, but who is still involved in evangelical ministry, as if he believes people have any freedom in the matter. This kind of incongruity is accepted as a part of religious living, for the most part.
One related phenomenon I’m working with is the notion of intermediary deities. In early Near Eastern theological thought there were multiple levels of deity, with authoritative deities on the top, the active “sons of God” on the second level, and the servant and messenger deities on the bottom. As Israelite religion gave way to Judaism, and YHWH was compartmentalized from the other gods, they were all demoted to angelic status, but continued to fill the same roles as messengers and active divine agents. Second Temple Judaism (and rabbinic to some degree) inflated and expanded those angelic roles and identities, but later Christian sensitivities would find that expanded junior pantheon unpalatable. Some traditions would nevertheless replace those intermediary figures with saints. Like the angels, they served intermediary functions, taking prayers before God and giving an anthropomorphic and familiar presence to God on earth. This trend evinces the fundamental cognitive predisposition to conceive of the divine as anthropomorphic and physically present, as well as reluctance to give them up.
As part of my research for my thesis I’m reading a fascinating article by Gebhard J. Selz entitled “The Divine Prototypes,” from the freely available Chicago University Press publication, Religion and Power: Divine Kingship in the Ancient World and Beyond. The thesis of the article is basically that the standard dichotomous Aristotelian categories of divine and human are insufficient to account for the data we find in the texts from ancient Mesopotamia vis-à-vis divine kingship. Selz proposes that a theory of cognitive science called Prototype theory may better digest the data. Selz offers no good definition of that theory, so I had to go find one on the Great Whore:
Prototype theory is a mode of graded categorization in cognitive science, where some members of a category are more central than others. For example, when asked to give an example of the concept furniture, chair is more frequently cited than, say, stool. Prototype theory also plays a central role in linguistics, as part of the mapping from phonological structure to semantics.
As formulated in the 1970s by Eleanor Rosch and others, prototype theory was a radical departure from traditional necessary and sufficient conditions as in Aristotelian logic, which led to set-theoretic approaches of extensional or intensional semantics. Thus instead of a definition based model – e.g. a bird may be defined as elements with the features [+feathers], [+beak] and [+ability to fly], prototype theory would consider a category like bird as consisting of different elements which have unequal status – e.g. a robin is more prototypical of a bird than, say a penguin. This leads to a graded notion of categories, which is a central notion in many models of cognitive science and cognitive semantics.
This theory is intriguing to me because it makes better sense of the existence of quite fuzzy boundaries in most definitions of ancient religious categories. It also, in my mind, seems to accord better with the way modern religionists conceptualize of theological boundaries, especially in terms of monotheism (the subject of my thesis). For instance, most Christians and Jews these days acknowledge the existence of multiple divine beings in the worldviews of ancient (and modern) Judaism and Christianity. Their view of those worldviews as thoroughly monotheistic is defended by many on the grounds that no other divine beings are divine in the same way, or to the same degree, that God is divine. In such a conceptualization of divinity, Yhwh functions as a divine prototype, and other divine beings are divine (or “gods”) only insofar as they approximate God’s prototypical divine nature. There are other ways to define monotheism today, of course, but this is not an uncommon one. Thoughts?
In reading literature on early Jewish and Christian monotheism (and especially the latter), I frequently run across attempts to reconcile ideas about other divinities with statements of God’s oneness by imposing a strict monotheistic rubric on the texts that then necessitates some kind of tricky ontological rationalization. The most explicit example I can think of is from Hurtado’s essay on first-century Jewish monotheism (published here and here; I will cite the latter). In it he argues for an inductive approach to evaluating monotheism (113):
The first methodological point to emphasize is the importance of proceeding inductively in forming and using analytical categories such as “monotheism.” On both sides of the issue (to varying degrees among individual studies) there has been a tendency to proceed deductively from a priori presumptions of what “monotheism” must mean, instead of building up a view inductively from the evidence of the thought and practice of ancient Jews (and earliest Christians). It is mistaken to assume that we can evaluate ancient Jewish texts and beliefs in terms of whether or how closely they meet our own preconceived idea of “pure” monotheism.
He goes on to state that we have to let self-identification determine who was monotheistic (114):
If we are to avoid a priori definitions and the imposition of our own theological judgments, we have no choice but to accept as monotheism the religion of those who profess to be monotheists, however much their religion varies and may seem “complicated” with other beings in addition to the one God.
The words “monotheism” and “monotheist,” however, did not exist during the Greco-Roman period. They first appear in philosophical treatises of the seventeenth century CE. We will never find an ancient Jewish or Christian text in which an author explicitly professes to be a “monotheist.” In order to identify “monotheism” in antiquity we have no choice but to retroject into the texts, to some degree, our own definitions of what a monotheist is. Hurtado does exactly this, but observe a qualification (114):
our policy should be to take people as monotheistic if that is what they profess to be, in spite of what we might be inclined to regard at first as anomalies in their beliefs and religious practices.
Basically, any ostensible claim to monotheism (based on “one God” language, presumably) will overrule any potential preclusion of it (such as might problematize a modern claim to monotheism). As an example, Hurtado highlights 1 Cor 8:4–6, which he asserts uses “monotheistic language” while at the same time “accommodating devotion to Christ in terms and actions characteristically deemed by them as otherwise reserved for God.”
I suggest that Hurtado is here allowing the ostensible presence of monotheism in 1 Cor 8:4–6, which he identifies based on vernacular today considered monotheistic, to govern his interpretation of the explicit acknowledgment of a divine being other than God. In other words, of the two apparently conflicting concepts, he is using monotheism as the constant or the reference point, and deciding how devotion to Christ should be understood in relation to it. But the statement “there is no other God but one” may not have meant to the author of Corinthians what it means to believers today. Ulrich Mauser made this very point twenty years ago:
It is my thesis that the Biblical insistence on the oneness of God is so different from the monotheistic consciousness of our time that the almost universal procedure of reading the Bible through the spectacles of a modern monotheist must result in a serious misreading of its message” (“One God Alone: A Pillar of Biblical Theology,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin 12.3 : 257, emphasis in original).
I suggest that Hurtado’s approach shackles the text and only lets it use “one God” language to mean what it means to us today. What would be the outcome if we were to turn the tables and seek a way to understand the language of 1 Cor 8:4–6 not in light of modern monotheism, but in light of devotion to a being other than God? Instead of asking how Christ can be worshipped and how there can be many that are “called gods” in light of the fact that the text is monotheistic, let us ask how the author can say there is only one God in light of the fact that Christ is worshipped and there are many that are “called gods.” This allows us to define their view of God’s oneness according to the text, rather than presuppose it and then try to fit their view of God’s plurality into that presupposition. After all, it’s monotheism we’re looking to define, isn’t it?
This is a bit older, but it bears mention. David Burnett has an interview with Michael Heiser on the subject of monotheism up on his blog, The Time Has Been Shortened. Check it out, as well as the previous interview with Nathan MacDonald, who heads up the Early Jewish Monotheisms project at Göttingen University.
In my previous post I mentioned two books that I bought at SBL and have already begun to read, namely Reconsidering the Concept of Revolutionary Monotheism and The Son of God in the Roman World. Both touch in some way on my thesis topic, the development of monotheism, and both treat contemporary academic positions regarding the nature of divinity in very similar ways. Specifically, both highlight a trend away from viewing divinity and humanity as separated by an ontological barrier, and toward viewing them as somewhat overlapping fields within a continuous spectrum. This insight is borrowed by both authors from scholarship on Roman emperor worship (both even cite the same author), but both insist it has explanatory power in their respective spheres (Assyro-Babylonian religion and early Christianity). I’ve found this understanding also alleviates a lot of issues scholars have had with understanding early Israelite and formative Jewish ideologies. Both authors go on at length about how this insight informs their particular interest in the divine, but two quotes show the similar approaches and similar influences. From Pongratz-Leisten’s article, “Divine Agency and Astralization of the Gods in Ancient Mesopotamia”:
Ittai Gradel’s approach to the notion of the divine in his book Emperor Worship and Roman Religion is inspiring when applied to religions of the ancient Near East. In the introduction to his book, Gradel cautions us against viewing ancient religions as an independent dimension, separable from other spheres of human experience and capable of being independently dissected. Based on the practice of ritual and sacrifice, he interprets the man-god divide, which clearly existed also in antiquity, as a reflection of a distinction in status rather than a distinction between their respective natures of “species.” He suggests that we speak of divinity as a “relative category” rather than beginning with the rather diffuse notion of “the Holy” and the “Numinous” and from the concept of the gods as a species. . . . Rather than conceptualizing the divine and human worlds as distinct realms, the human sphere gradually merges with the realm of the divine.
And from Peppard’s book:
Scholars such as Simon Price, Ittai Gradel, and Clifford Ando articulate interpretations of divinity that confound the categories customarily used by Roman historians and scholars of religion. In their view, divinity in the Roman world was not an essence or a nature, but a concept of status and power in a cosmic spectrum that had no absolute dividing lines. The realm of the gods was not, in the famous maxim of Rudolf Otto, “wholly Other.” In this chapter, I survey and synthesize the current conclusions of this burgeoning field of research, in order to encourage fellow scholars to question their presuppositions about divinity in the Roman world, just as I have scrutinized and reoriented my own. My approach to the matter draws especially from recent studies of emperor worship, while also making some analogies to scholarship on Judaism and Christianity in their Roman context.