On the International SBL

I will not be able to attend the international SBL this July, although I would really like to be there. At first it was just to have the opportunity to get back to England, see some more of London, and go see a bunch of people at Oxford. Then I found out about a program unit there called “The Concept of Monotheism: Should it Have a Future in Biblical Studies?” The masters thesis I’m currently writing is about the development of monotheism. Specifically, I’m going to argue that scholarship has too long used the 17th century term “monotheism” prescriptively in analyzing ancient Judaism and Christianity. Although I think its original meaning has little value today, I do think the term can have heuristic value. I propose a descriptive understanding of the term based on modern notions of what it means and then I identify the rise of the key elements of that understanding in antiquity. You can imagine how annoyed I am, then, about missing the opportunity to attend the following papers and speak with their authors:

Rüdiger Schmitt, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster
Monotheism and Polytheism in Nineteeth and Early Twentieth Century Scholarship and Its Impact on Modern Research

The concepts of monotheism and polytheism as utilized in modern research are deeply rooted in the evolutionist paradigm of late 19th and early 20th century scholarship, which postulated a more or less linear development of religion from “savagery through barbarism to civilization” (Lewis Henry Morgan), or from polytheism to (Christian) monotheism. The paper examines the theoretical foundations of the concepts of monotheism and polytheism, in particular in the Deutsche Religionsgeschichtliche Schule, and its still strong impact on modern scholarship. It will be demonstrated that the universalistic theories of the evolutionist paradigm with its dogmatically biased views and artificial oppositions (polytheism vs. monotheism, magic vs. religion, Naturreligion vs. Offenbarungsreligion, etc.) cannot meaningfully be applied by contemporary scholarship to ancient Israelite and ancient Near Eastern religions.

Konrad Schmid, Universität Zürich
The Monotheism of the Priestly Code 

“Monotheism” is not a biblical, but a deistic category from the 17th century CE and therefore may appear problematic for various reasons. Nevertheless, academic analysis of ancient texts allows and sometimes even forces scholars to use concepts that are originally alien to the objects of study (Dilthey, Gadamer, Danto). Therefore, it is not a priori illegitimate to use anachronistic terms like “monotheism” in biblical studies (the same is true for “religion”, “cult”, “history”, etc.). However, there is certainly a need for explanation, differentiation, and critical reflection. This paper seeks to carry out such an investigation of some of the major monotheistic arguments developed by the Priestly texts in the Pentateuch, aiming to understand their theological focus in their specific historical and sociological setting.

Saul M. Olyan, Brown University
Is Isaiah 40-55 Really “Monotheistic?”

Isaiah 40-55 is often understood as a work bearing witness clearly and unambiguously to an incipient monotheism, the monotheistic biblical work par excellence. Yet this paper will reconsider this particular understanding of Second Isaiah’s work in light of texts such as Isa 40:1-8; 40:25-26; and 51:9-11. If the evidence of Isaiah 40-55 is better explained without recourse to the concept of monotheism, why retain the concept to describe the ideology of Second Isaiah?

Thomas Römer, Université de Lausanne and Collège de France
Yhwh, the Goddess and Evil: Is “Monotheism” an Adequate Concept to Describe the Hebrew Bible’s Discourses About the God of Israel? 

During the Persian period traditional Judahite religion underwent important changes. Influential priestly and lay groups in the Babylonian Golah and in the province of Yehud wanted to transform the former national deity into the only god of Israel and of all nations. In order to do so, they had to address the problem caused by the disappearance of a female deity traditionally associated with Yhwh and if and how the only god, Israel’s savior, could be held responsible for the existence of evil forces. The Hebrew Bible contains different attempts to resolve these problems. Interestingly in both cases some “solutions” give rise to divine figures such as the personification Hokhma and the figure of Satan. In this respect it appears difficult to apply a philosophical concept of monotheism to the Hebrew Bible.

Diana Edelman, University of Sheffield
The Hebrew Bible and Emerging Monotheism

While texts that assert monotheism are very rare in the Hebrew Bible, they exist, and the collection as a whole can be characterized as a dialogue about emerging monotheism. The texts reflect a time of transition within the religious community that calls itself Israel, situated in various locations in the Persian and Hellenistic empires. A range of religious beliefs and understandings about the divine realm are included in the various books, which logically reflect the attitudes of the community members. Yet various strategies are used to instruct the audience about what should be considered “the norm” and to wean people away from Iron Age beliefs and practices to a system that ideally is monotheistic, with adapted rituals and practices that reinforce this view.

André Lemaire, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes
Monotheism in Biblical Studies? In Favor of a Diachronic and Nuanced Approach 

That there are biblical texts that claim that there is only one god is obvious. Though one is tempted to interpret these “One-God” texts as monotheistic, they may also suggest monolatry. This last interpretation is particularly obvious in sentences containing the phrase “Yahweh the God of Israel”. There are therefore at least two concepts of divinity in biblical texts and, moreover, some “One-God” phrases apparently meant first monolatry but were read again later on as monotheism. To understand this diversity and the problem of the use of monotheism in biblical studies, a diachronic approach to the Bible and to Israelite religion is necessary.

Christian Frevel, Ruhr-Universität Bochum
Beyond Monotheism: Implicit Exclusion, Exclusivity and Explicit Uniqueness

On the one hand, the concept of monotheism is burdened with trouble because of (a) its rootedness in the early modern era; (b) the implicit claim of systematization and the connection to a teleological development perspective; (c) an implicit apologetic truth claim; (d) diametrical opposition to polytheism; (e) the apparent unavoidable confusion of philosophical and historical approaches; and (f) the often reductionist shortcomings in the violence discourse. Thus, the concept seems inappropriate to be applied to the history of Israelite/Judahite religion. On the other hand, the term is essential in biblical studies, is most significant in the modern Western World, and has had an undisputed heuristic quality as a useful category of description for a long time. Thus, it also seems inappropriate to abandon it completely. Does this biased concept have a useful legacy or a unique explanatory potential with respect to the heterogeneous biblical evidence or the tension-filled relatedness of the biblical and historical record? This paper will opt for a reflected and differentiated use of the meta-language term “monotheism” by defining its boundaries, scope and direction of reference. Monotheism is understood as a relational concept which remains ambiguous without defining the frame of reference.

Rainer Albertz, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster
Developed and Underdeveloped Polytheism: The Evidence from the Levantine Onomastica

A close study of the theophoric elements in the Levantine onomastica of the first millennium B.C.E. reveals no opposition between monotheism and polytheism, but rather a distinction between different kinds of polytheism. The Hebrew, Ammonite and Moabite personal names show a restricted number of deities or divine epithets and seem to belong to an underdeveloped kind of polytheism, while the Aramean and Phoenician onomastica contain a considerably higher number. They obviously represent a more developed kind of polytheism. The difference seems to have to do less with beliefs of the individual family religions – they are very similar throughout the Levant – and more with the stage of development of the societies in question, and the extent of their integration in international commercial and political relations.

Philip Davies, University of Sheffield

There are two aspects to this question. One is whether there is such a concept as ‘monotheism’ in the Bible. Should we try for a more precise description of the various conceptions of deity? The other is whether our discipline should operate within a monotheistic paradigm and continue to talk about ‘God’ rather than the various divine names and identities that the text presents us with. In both cases I am inclined to answer that the concept should not have a future within Biblical Studies, though the matter is complicated by the fact that so many scholars operate within the institutional climate of a seminary in which the existence of ‘God’ is a cultural assumption. So the whole issue of whether we can as scholars talk about ‘God’ (or even worse, ‘G*d’ ) will be contested. At the moment, however, there is not much of a contest: we all easily slip into ‘God’-talk, and perhaps it is time some of us made an issue of it. Even atheists often talk about ‘not believing in God’ when they really mean they don’t believe that gods exist!

Nathan MacDonald, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen
The End of the Monotheism Debate?

 The debate about monotheism amongst Old Testament scholars has operated within a particular intellectual paradigm where questions of the origins of monotheism are primary. Monographs devoted to the subject have a particular form. They begin with Yahwism’s origins in late Bronze Age polytheism, and make their way to the exilic breakthrough of “monotheism” by way of a faded Moses, a lionized YHWH-alone movement found particularly in Elijah and classical prophecy, and the Josianic reformation. Usually with Deutero-Isaiah the triumphal procession is brought to an apparently satisfactory end. It appears that monotheism is only important in its conception and gestation. This paper will draw on recent work to question assumptions about where the monotheism debate should end.

Bob Becking, Universiteit Utrecht
An Obsolete Anachronism: A Plea for Avoiding the Concept of Monotheism 

The concept ‘monotheism’ is a mere anachronism when it comes to describing the period in the history of religion in Ancient Israel when only one God was supposed to be venerated. The idea was coined first, as far as I can see, by the British Platonist Henry More around 1660. It had been part of the theistic discourse in systematic theology. This discourse alienates the image of God from the lived religion in Ancient Israel. In my opinion we should therefore abandon this term. I would propose to use the concept of monolatry for the period mentioned above.

Mark S. Smith, New York University
‘Terms Limits’: Should the Term ‘Monotheism’ be Retired?

Any question involving “should,” as in the title of this session, may suggest an intellectual issue (intellectually, is the term worth keeping?) and perhaps a moral problem as well (ethically, is it right to keep it?). Given the term’s relatively modern development and role in assertions of western cultural superiority, not to mention its tendency to distort the ancient data, it might seem best to drop the term. On the other hand, its familiarity outside of academic settings suggests keeping it as part of a larger academic effort to communicate to the wider society in a critical manner about religion. The term’s familiarity as well as its problems arguably provide a teaching moment about religion that should not be abandoned prematurely. Many terms in the study of religion, such as “religion,” are problematic, but the field continues to use them. Such terms help people enter into the discussion, but the discussion then provides an opportunity for analyzing the prejudices embedded in them and to go past the terms and their difficulties and into the cultural and religious history that informed them in the first place. This paper will explore these problems as well as the merits that the use of the term, monotheism, may arguably provide.


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