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.


9 responses to “Richard Hess on Monotheism

  • James

    I’m flattered!

    But, please note that I didn’t call them angels. I don’t know what they are, except created supernatural beings. Others might call them angels—and they might be correct. But, the early church wasn’t uniform in that belief; some felt they were the offspring of the Genesis passage about the sons of god mating with the daughters of men. From what I understand (and it isn’t my area of expertise), second temple Judaism was equally ambivalent about the origin of the genus/species of δαιμων.


    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Hi James. Thanks for dropping by. Yes, I recognize you don’t call them angels. My main point there was that their contingent status keeps them from compromising a monotheistic worldview. Would that be accurate of your statement?

      Many others do call them angels, and the Septuagint translation, followed by other Hellenistic era literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, rabbinic literature, etc., make a pretty clear case for considering the gods of the nations to be angels. It seems to me that demons were also associated with angels at that time. The Watchers traditions certainly associate them with fallen angels. This is research that is ongoing, though.

      • James

        Yes. That would be pretty accurate, although I still am not sure about the monotheism as opposed to henotheism, but that might just be definitions.


  • Brian Small

    It sounds like Hess is describing “henotheism” not “monotheism.”

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      It does sound like it, but he may be trying to make a case that henotheism/monolatry are unnecessary distinctions. He wouldn’t be the first.

  • Brian Small

    Perhaps, but I think it creates an unnecessary confusion when one talks about monotheism, when one is really talking about henotheism. There is a difference.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      I agree, which is why I think my approach falls more in line with the way modern believers think of monotheism. I think Hess’ argument is largely trying to push monotheism back as far as it can in time.

  • Howard Mazzaferro


    Maybe you can help me, I read Richard Hess’ post and it seems to me that he is questioning the authenticity of the Hebrew Bible itself. Am I reading this correctly? To me, with the exception of the periods when Israel fell into complete apostasy, the Bible clearly implies that monotheism was practiced from the beginning of Genesis. Now if Hess is only examining extra biblical evidence to support the Bible’s claims, I understand, but why does he only go back to Josiah? Also, the clay figurines may simply represent one of the periods when Israel rejected their God. Jer 44:15-30

    Finally in his last statement he says:

    “Of course, it is not necessary to demonstrate that everyone in Judah worshiped a single deity. This is most unlikely, given the nature of human religion. However, it is not at all unlikely that many did recognize Yahweh alone as their god.”

    When ancient Israel was faithful to YHWH, the above statement would be unthinkable. YHWH demanded exclusive devotion, and anyone proving unfaithful was to be put to death. I just can not picture the people of Judah running around with different beliefs or gods and that it was acceptable like it is today in Christianity. And yes, at the end of the second temple period there were different Jewish factions, but again, this was another period of apostasy.

  • The Biblical Studies Carnival LVIII « כל־האדם

    […] writes about Monotheism in the ancient world, and Daniel McClellon (Daniel O. McClellon) responds. Along these lines, James Spinti (Idle Musings of a Bookseller) muses about the ontology of the […]

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