Tag Archives: Larry Hurtado

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?

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Michael Kok and Critical Questions for the Early High Christology Club

Michael Kok has a great article up on Bible and Interpretation entitled “Critical Questions for the Early High Christology Club” that discusses some of the main ideas that have been promulgated in recent years related to the development of high christology and invites a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of those ideas. I’ve submitted a comment that should be up shortly. If you’re interested in the topic, join the discussion.


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.


Larry Hurtado Reviews Staudt’s Der eine und einzige Gott

Larry Hurtado has some comments up about Darina Staudt’s 2012 Der eine und einzige Gott: Monotheistische Formeln im Urchristentum und ihre Vorgeschichte bei Griechen und Juden. Here’s a snippet:

This is a survey-analysis of the use of several “forms” (fixed expressions) used in ancient texts that figure in discourse about gods:  εἷς θεός (“one god”), μόνος θεός (“only god”), and οὐκ ἔστιν ἔτι πλήν (“there is no other”).  The main purpose of her study is to trace the background and possible influences upon the way in which “monotheistic” language is used in early Christian sources, and also how the risen/exalted Jesus is so readily incorporated into what we may call “God-discourse”.

Looks like an important contribution to understanding how early Jews and Christians conceived of God. I look forward to getting a hold of it.


On Monotheism as a Restrictive Interpretive Framework

In reading literature on early Jewish and Christian monotheism (and especially the latter), I frequently run across attempts to reconcile ideas about other divinities with statements of God’s oneness by imposing a strict monotheistic rubric on the texts that then necessitates some kind of tricky ontological rationalization. The most explicit example I can think of is from Hurtado’s essay on first-century Jewish monotheism (published here and here; I will cite the latter). In it he argues for an inductive approach to evaluating monotheism (113):

The first methodological point to emphasize is the importance of proceeding inductively in forming and using analytical categories such as “monotheism.” On both sides of the issue (to varying degrees among individual studies) there has been a tendency to proceed deductively from a priori presumptions of what “monotheism” must mean, instead of building up a view inductively from the evidence of the thought and practice of ancient Jews (and earliest Christians). It is mistaken to assume that we can evaluate ancient Jewish texts and beliefs in terms of whether or how closely they meet our own preconceived idea of “pure” monotheism.

He goes on to state that we have to let self-identification determine who was monotheistic (114):

If we are to avoid a priori definitions and the imposition of our own theological judgments, we have no choice but to accept as monotheism the religion of those who profess to be monotheists, however much their religion varies and may seem “complicated” with other beings in addition to the one God.

The words “monotheism” and “monotheist,” however, did not exist during the Greco-Roman period. They first appear in philosophical treatises of the seventeenth century CE. We will never find an ancient Jewish or Christian text in which an author explicitly professes to be a “monotheist.” In order to identify “monotheism” in antiquity we have no choice but to retroject into the texts, to some degree, our own definitions of what a monotheist is. Hurtado does exactly this, but observe a qualification (114):

our policy should be to take people as monotheistic if that is what they profess to be, in spite of what we might be inclined to regard at first as anomalies in their beliefs and religious practices.

Basically, any ostensible claim to monotheism (based on “one God” language, presumably) will overrule any potential preclusion of it (such as might problematize a modern claim to monotheism). As an example, Hurtado highlights 1 Cor 8:4–6, which he asserts uses “monotheistic language” while at the same time “accommodating devotion to Christ in terms and actions characteristically deemed by them as otherwise reserved for God.”

I suggest that Hurtado is here allowing the ostensible presence of monotheism in 1 Cor 8:4–6, which he identifies based on vernacular today considered monotheistic, to govern his interpretation of the explicit acknowledgment of a divine being other than God. In other words, of the two apparently conflicting concepts, he is using monotheism as the constant or the reference point, and deciding how devotion to Christ should be understood in relation to it. But the statement “there is no other God but one” may not have meant to the author of Corinthians what it means to believers today. Ulrich Mauser made this very point twenty years ago:

It is my thesis that the Biblical insistence on the oneness of God is so different from the monotheistic consciousness of our time that the almost universal procedure of reading the Bible through the spectacles of a modern monotheist must result in a serious misreading of its message” (“One God Alone: A Pillar of Biblical Theology,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin 12.3 [1991]: 257, emphasis in original).

I suggest that Hurtado’s approach shackles the text and only lets it use “one God” language to mean what it means to us today. What would be the outcome if we were to turn the tables and seek a way to understand the language of 1 Cor 8:4–6 not in light of modern monotheism, but in light of devotion to a being other than God? Instead of asking how Christ can be worshipped and how there can be many that are “called gods” in light of the fact that the text is monotheistic, let us ask how the author can say there is only one God in light of the fact that Christ is worshipped and there are many that are “called gods.” This allows us to define their view of God’s oneness according to the text, rather than presuppose it and then try to fit their view of God’s plurality into that presupposition. After all, it’s monotheism we’re looking to define, isn’t it?


Larry Hurtado on Scripture and Canon

(HT Michael Heiser) Larry makes an important distinction between the two. Too many scholars and lay people fail to do so. See here.


Michael Heiser, SBL, and the Divine Council

Michael Heiser has two new posts up at The Naked Bible which discuss his experience at ETS and SBL last week. One discusses papers he presented at ETS entitled “Should the Plural אלהים of Psalm 82 be Understood as Men or Divine Beings?” and “What is an Elohim?” The papers are available here and here, and are closely related to other papers published previously here and here. Michael (I hope he doesn’t mind if I use his first name for convenience) also addresses an old Alpha & Omega Ministries post critiquing his view of Psalm 82. As Michael points out, James White misses the mark on a number of issues. I may write a response to it myself one day.

Michael’s other post mentions the second Early Jewish Monotheisms section from SBL, which he attended from beginning to end. He had promised to attend the paper I read in that session after a short discussion earlier this year on his blog about Mormonism and the Divine Council. I hope he wasn’t disappointed in my paper.

A bit on that Mormonism discussion, by the way: Michael’s work is often quoted among lay and academic Latter-day Saint crowds as a result of his position on “the gods” in texts like Psalm 82 and Deuteronomy 32. Someone evidently emailed Dr. Heiser to ask if Mormons were representing his work accurately online. He states,

I answered the above question negatively since the emailer informed me that some Mormons on the web are thinking that I believe Yahweh had a father distinct from Himself. Nope. No idea how anyone who’s read my material could come away with that one.

I agree that it’s hard to imagine that someone could come away from his material thinking he espoused such an idea, which is one of the primary reasons I believe the person who emailed him either misunderstood or misrepresented the LDS position they described. I’ve personally never seen anyone so misrepresent Michael’s position. The Latter-day Saints who participate in online discussions of this nature are well aware of his position.

Anyway, it was nice to meet Michael (taller than I thought), and I’m glad he enjoyed hearing Larry Hurtado. Before the session began I was anticipating a question or comment from Michael on my view of Yhwh and El as originally distinct deities, but the issue was raised several times in the other papers, and my view was reiterated each time. It probably would have been a little tedious to bring it up after all that. Michael’s dissertation was mentioned several times, and both Larry and I made reference in our papers to his phrase “species uniqueness.” On his blog Michael mentions he’d like to return to his dissertation and see it published. I think it would be a great idea. It was nice to see so much interaction on these topics, and I look forward to future sessions. I’m told Mark Smith is interested in the question of monotheism in wisdom literature for next year’s session, which sounds like it could be interesting.