Larry Hurtado on Early Jewish Monotheism

I am reviewing some scholarship on monotheism in ancient Israel and early Judaism, and I have come across something I find peculiar, and I’m wondering if others have drawn attention to it. In his article “First-Century Jewish Monotheism” and in its reprint in How On Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Hurtado argues that authors in early Judaism self-identified as monotheists. Now, that word simply did not exist until after 1660, so they cannot have directly self-identified as monotheists. As Hurtado argues, though, the appeal to “one God” language counts, despite the fact that early Jewish literature did not seem to worry about scattered but explicit references to other gods. Hurtado only ever calls them gods in referring to ancient Jewish refusal to worship them, though. In the context of their appearance in literature, they are “heavenly beings,” “principal angels” that are “clothed with god-like attributes,” “divine agents,” “‘divine’ figures,” etc. Despite this reticence, Hurtado insists that viewing these “heavenly beings” as problematic for monotheism is a problem with our expectations, not with early Judaism. And here’s the part that I find particular peculiar. Hurtado seems to me to argue that the “heavenly beings” mentioned in Jewish texts somehow don’t qualify as monotheism-undermining “gods” because the exclusivity of Jewish worship reveals the true meaning of the texts (namely, monotheism). Here is what he says:

Thus, for example, scholars argue largely about whether ancient Jews conceived of more than one figure as divine, and they seek to answer the question almost entirely on the basis of semantic arguments about the meaning of honorific titles or phrases, without always studying adequately how ancient Jews practiced their faith. But in the same way that modern principles of linguistics persuasively teach us that the particular meaning of a word in any given occurrence is shaped crucially by the sentence in which it is used, and just as it is a basic principle of exegesis to understand the meaning of phrases and statements in the larger context of a passage or even a whole document, so it should be recognized as a basic principle in the analysis of religious traditions that the real meaning of words, phrases, and statements is always connected with the practice(s) of the religious tradition.

If my reading of this is accurate, Hurtado is insisting that the exclusive worship of one God absolutely precludes the possibility that early Jewish devotees read early Jewish literature as referring to “gods” in a way that undermines the application of monotheism to their tradition. It seems to me he is arguing this on the grounds that words, phrases, and statements cannot, as a principle, be understood by devotees to conflict with their practices.

This strikes me as a phenomenally bizarre way of insisting early Judaism is going to be considered monotheistic no matter what. Has this perspective been clarified or engaged elsewhere?

8 responses to “Larry Hurtado on Early Jewish Monotheism

  • Neil Godfrey

    I recall seeing a couple of general criticisms. One that comes to mind now is Daniel Boyarin in Border Lines where he says (p. 119)

    While in general I find Hurtado’s argument bracing and important, his exclusive reliance on only one criterion, worship, to determine the divine nature of a given intermediary seems to me overly narrow and rigid.

    This comes close to your own objection to Hurtado’s reasoning, though your own point is helpfully more explicitly clear.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the reference! I’ll look that up. I’m presenting at a conference in St Andrews in June that aimed at early Jewish and Christian notions of the son of God, so I’m anticipating having to engage Hurtado and Bauckham and others. It’ll be helpful to get more background on what others have said, as this field isn’t directly in my wheelhouse.

  • Brian Lopez


    Have you contacted Larry? If not, you should. He has blogged about similar misunderstandings from students like me and renowned scholars. I’ve had several exchanges with him in the past concerning similar, related issues about worship and monotheism (and divine intermediaries) and it only showed my misunderstanding of what he meant. Also, he sometimes expects you to have read his older works before critiquing his newer works, which works as a conceptual matrix for what he means in his most recent works.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      We’ve talked a couple different times. I will be presenting a paper at a conference in St. Andrews in June that I am assuming he’ll be attending. I imagine we’ll have the opportunity to talk more about this.

  • Howard Pepper

    One question that comes to mind from Hurtado’s statement is how much can we know about the “practice(s) of the religious tradition”? That is beyond the same texts in which the meaning of the words is trying to be established. Maybe there is more than I’m aware of or remembering right now. But it seems there is quite a bit of evidence that at least until around the time of the coming of the Greeks and then the Maccabean rebellion, that other gods (especially Baal) were quite heavily worshipped, in competition with Yahweh.

    (I AM interested in understanding better how and when transition took place to a more universal Yahweh-only tradition.)

    • Brian Lopez

      Howard, your suggestion is the kind of misunderstanding I was referring to that Hurtado has repeatedly blogged about in the past few years. That’s actually a misrepresentation about what he has argued in his works. Im not going to repeat everything in a blog entry. Search his blog (there’s a search engine) about monotheism and deity/divinity/divine intermediaries first; and then if you still have questions, send him an email. The best would be to carefully read all his older works. There is fair criticism out there from other scholars.

      • Howard Pepper

        Thanks for the response, Brian. I’m sure it would only be fair to Hurtado as an individual to read his works if one is critiquing him. That wasn’t the intention of my comment… more a general observation and a wondering. In my limited time for study, I’ve been focusing mostly on Christian origins and the issues around the Jerusalem Church and Paul (not only “new perspective” though that’s part of it). So I can’t imagine taking time to read much of his work. I’ve studied it all enough, over 5 decades now (began Bible college – Biola – in 1967) to be fully confident that the traditional view of the first few decades of Christianity is largely wrong… and that’s with the “early high Christology” points in view, which I believe I recall hearing/reading Hurtado contribute to.

        I’ve seen him and Witherington (I believe twice viewed) give lengthy responses to Robert Orlando’s important documentary film/book on Paul: “A Polite Bribe”. It’s a post-screening discussion (on, if it’s still up) with those two and Orlando at the 2014 AAR/SBL convention in San Diego. Both are well-versed and relatively open for “conservative” scholars. However, I did not find them sharing anything that adequately supports the “standard” view (of orthodoxy) of the relation between the Jerusalem leaders and Paul…. But their own views seem more nuanced and historically realistic than what one normally hears or reads in Evangelical circles, following Acts more closely than Paul’s letters and either overlooking or trying to excuse or harmonize all the “revisionism”, the heavy spin by Luke.

  • Brian Lopez

    Fair enough, Howard. Understood.

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