Tag Archives: Jewish Monotheism

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?


Part 1 of Review of How God Became Jesus is up at Near Emmaus

Part 1 of my now-two-part review of Bird, et al., How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature is now posted at Near Emmaus. In this segment I respond only to the contributions of Bird, of which I am quite critical. Please have a look and feel free to comment here, there, or anywhere.


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.


Joel’s Book Giveaway: The Only True God, by James McGrath

Joel’s giving away a copy of James McGrath’s The Only True God. Entry is a bit more involved this time around, but well worth it.