Paula Fredriksen on Early Jewish 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.


17 responses to “Paula Fredriksen on Early Jewish Monotheism

  • Paul D.

    What would you suggest for further reading on the subject?

  • Brian LePort

    I’ve finished Ehrman’s first chapter and found it insightful. I don’t have Bird, et al., with me yet, so I can’t see there response, but thanks for pointing out Fredriksen’s point here. It is worth keeping in mind.

    Have you read Dunn’s book from a few years back on whether the early Christians worshiped Jesus and do you think it would be worth reading if you have read it?

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Brian, I have read Dunn’s book, which is another text that is conspicuously absent from both books (so far). I reviewed a few chapter here:

      I do think it would be helpful, as it tempers some of the vehemence of Bird, et al., concerning the worship of Jesus. For instance, they repeatedly bring up Matt 4:10, where Jesus says to Satan, “it is written, you shall worship the Lord your God, and him only will you serve,” making a big deal about how Jesus says God alone is to be worshipped, but they ignore an important point that Dunn highlights: the second verb there is latreuo, which is never once used to refer to any honor or worship given to Jesus.

  • Stephen

    Glad that some folks are calling attention to the ongoing, but slow (and only slowly being noticed), demolition of the category “monotheism,” or at least the category as deployed by many biblical scholars. This is a multifaceted project, and more (and more forceful!) publications within it should be appearing in the coming years.

  • Are the Christologies of Paul and Mark Different?

    […] on the show Unbelievable, plus an interview with three contributors to How God Became Jesus. And Dan McClellan’s blog post about monotheism and Paula Fredriksen’s argument that divinity…. Also, Nijay Gupta and Dale Tuggy are among those who’ve blogged about the phenomenon of […]

  • DSV

    On p. 101-103, Gathercole speaks of a dividing line in Jewish minds between Creator and creature, and that Jesus is in the first category, not the second. The first is to be worshipped, and the second is not. You’re saying this is too simplistic of an understanding of Jewish monotheism? Thoughts?

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the great question. In my view, the notion of such a metaphysical dividing line doesn’t fit into first century Judaism, and for a number of reasons. First, it’s nowhere stated explicitly, but must be exclusively inferred by Bauckham and others. Additionally, that inference is drawn entirely from the notion, stated in a variety of ways throughout the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, that God created “all things.” Bauckham and others must insist on interpreting this rhetoric (for instance, “heaven and earth” did not necessarily constitute “all reality”) as a quite conscious and intentional declaration of God’s creation of absolutely all reality. Not only does this presuppose creation ex nihilo, which didn’t develop until the second century CE, but it requires mainstream Judaism have a quite sophisticated philosophical metaphysical outlook, which just isn’t how Palestinian Judaism and the Christian community were constituted.

      It seems to me this dividing line is a creative way to squeeze the Nicene Creed into early Christianity, but it requires a sophisticated theology that could have allowed for early Judaism to seamlessly accommodate two persons in one being—a concept it took Christian theologians steeped in Greco-Roman philosophy centuries of debate and discussion to work out. It just doesn’t make sense to me that Judaism had the metaphysical mechanisms so integrated into their monotheism that they didn’t even have to think twice about it (those that converted, anyway. Those that didn’t sure seemed to have missed the boat on Jesus’ participation in God’s divine identity).

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    I would say Paul can certainly insist the creator deserves to be worshipped over and against their creation without assuming some great ontological dichotomy is in view.

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  • Howard Pepper

    Reblogged this on Natural Spirituality – Loving Forum for Spiritual Harmony & Growth and commented:
    Ok… this (pretty short) article is more “wonky” than my own posts. But it is actually important (and what it is pointing to is, further) to people with an interest in understanding the “how Jesus became God” process…. That is, how his divinity came to be believed in and proclaimed relatively quickly after his death, if not during his lifetime. (Even many conservative scholars no longer say it was claimed by him or believed in his lifetime.) In one sense, what is being discussed by McClellan here is a “deep” scholarly issue, best plumped by specialists. But all of us can and should understand that it is critical to grasp, the best we can, how ANY ancient audience of an ancient writing thought… how they would likely have taken certain concepts, such as “Who is God/god and what is God(s) like” (or “monotheism”). It may help solve some important, deep mysteries.

  • worshippingmind

    Thanks for a great post. Bauckham’s proposal of “Christology of divine identity” is fatally flawed on a few levels. The first is the necessity to ignore the logical axiom of “indiscernibility of identicals.” His whole excursus on what belongs this side and what that side of the divine/human divide is also flawed: 1). There was no hard divide between the two realms, as you rightfully show above. This is disastrous to Bauckham’s proposal. 2) His whole classification exercise is redundant if a pre-determined identification exists. If Someone has already been identified as the One True God, then no amount of analysis/categorisation will change this, since identity is not dependent upon classification. No amount of honours, or extent of status or dignity given to any of God’s emissaries can disrupt a pre-determined identity, hence the error of Bauckham’s exercise.

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