I’ve decided on a topic for my masters thesis and am beginning to collect literature related to it. In short, I am going to investigate the relationship of the Hebrew Bible’s appeal to divine council imagery with the development of monotheism within Judaism. I will argue that changes to divine council ideology and a critical reading of the associated texts point to the Hellenistic era as the date for the development of strict monotheism. Right now I’m reading a Religion article from 1999 by Robert Gnuse entitled “The Emergence of Monotheism in Ancient Israel: A Survey of Recent Scholarship.” I’d like to briefly respond to one particular point Gnuse makes on page 314:
Most critical scholars agree that the leap from practical to pure monotheism requires some social and religious crisis to encourage the complete surrender of all gods save one.
I understand this is a pretty common theory, and I addressed it very briefly in a previous post, but I’d like to dig a little deeper into an alternative theory of what catalyzed monotheism. I don’t believe a crisis is required, as Gnuse states. If the process is slow and the shifts are subtle, any number of impetuses could be responsible for the change.
Gnuse’s article goes on to distinguish between practical monotheism and pure monotheism. Practical monotheism is not denying the existence of other gods, but just ignoring them. For all intents and purposes, YHWH is the only real deity, even if the other nations worship legitimate deities. As I argued in the above-cited post, this is the source of Deutero-Isaiah and Deuteronomy’s rhetoric. Pure monotheism would be a theology that explicitly rejects the existence of any grade of deity (technically, no Judeo-Christian theology is purely monotheistic, but there’s the other category of “inclusive monotheism,” which will be discussed in my thesis). I have argued and will argue that this wasn’t accomplished, for the most part, until the several deities of pre-Exilic and Exilic Israel were consolidated into the angelic realms.
I see the impetus for pure monotheism as multifaceted, but based on the influence of Greek philosophical views of deity, the universalization and transcendence of YHWH, and the need for heavenly intermediation. A transcendent deity is entirely separated from humanity. With no way to condescend, there is no real relationship. An angelic retinue provides suitable intermediation, and the literary convention of a divine council is easily appropriated for that purpose. The explosion of literature at this time period provides fertile ground for the exploration of these and other theological innovations (including the demotion of Satan to the same angelic realms), and monotheism is popularized.